Black Panthers Redux

By Michael Getler

April 22, 2016

Back on Feb. 16, Independent Lens — PBS’s long-running, weekly program of original, independently-produced documentaries — aired a two-hour film titled “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.”

wrote about it at the time but I’m coming back to it for much the same reasons as I wrote about it in the first place, which I’ll explain.

I don’t want to go over that first column but, just as introductory material, I wrote back on Feb. 23 that into the explosive mix of events that unfolded during the 1960s came the Black Panther Party, “a complex, controversial and never easy to define movement that electrified some and terrified others. It started out as a protest and protection movement against claims and instances of police brutality against blacks and grew, for several years, into what this two-hour documentary…called the ‘Vanguard of the Revolution.’”

I reported that “the film is the work of Stanley Nelson, a highly-acclaimed and honored filmmaker, and it has won considerable and widespread praise — with some mildly critical points made here and there — in reviews by The New York TimesThe Washington PostChicago TribuneLos Angeles TimesBoston GlobeOregonLive and on film sites such as Variety and A.V. Club.”

Here Comes the ‘But…’

But I added: “You could not tell that from the email in my box, however…I got more than 80 emails. All critical. Many of them came in soon after the broadcast aired, and seemed to be in response to a detailed critique by Lee Stranahan, a writer whose work appeared on the conservative website Breitbart.”

So the reason for this second posting on the same program is that Stranahan has come back to the subject, posting a new critique on April 7 on Breitbart.com and accusing the filmmakers of “blatant falsehoods and deceptive filmmaking.”

In response to his latest posting, I received only one email and three phone calls, two of which were laced with obscenities. Nevertheless, Stranahan raised some substantive challenges in his first posting and he does so again in his latest effort. You can read all of Stranahan’s most recent critique by clicking on the link above.

What follows now is my attempt to provide the key points raised by Stranahan redux, followed by a response that I requested from Independent Lens, and some further thoughts of mine.

The Key Episode in Stranahan’s Critique, in His Words:

The sequence which shows the death of Black Panther member Bobby Hutton both grossly oversimplifies the circumstances and also misrepresents straightforward facts…this sequence serves as part of the film’s wider narrative, designed to elicit sympathy for Hutton and contempt for the police, and America as a whole.

The filmmakers deceive the viewers about the following facts in this one short sequence:

• The film makes it appear that [Party Minister of Information Eldridge] Cleaver and Hutton were the only participants in the police ambush, when in fact about ten or more Panthers-at least three vehicles full, according to the Panthers themselves–were involved.

• The film describes the two “going into battle” when in fact a group of Black Panthers launched an unprovoked attack, ambushed police officers and shot them in the back.

• No mention is made of the hour and a half gun battle that led to a third policeman being injured, which was a huge fight where Cleaver and Hutton were shooting at police that immediately preceded Hutton’s shooting

• The film leads the viewer to believe that Bobby Hutton “walked out of the house and was gunned down.” In fact, Hutton ran out and attempted to flee — a fact that even Eldridge Cleaver admitted — which was the police explanation for the shooting. None of this is mentioned in the film.

• The sequence uses charged, deceptive language. The viewer hears Bobby Hutton’s death described as “being shot down like a common animal”…“murdered by police” and being “slaughtered.” The sequence ends with a quote claiming that the Panthers want “nonviolence” and saying “we must defend ourselves” even though Hutton’s death came from an ambush of the police initiated by the Black Panthers and a subsequent gun battle — neither of which are portrayed in the film.

To further support his critique, Stranahan reproduces what he describes as: “The following balanced account written by Edward Epstein for the New Yorker in 1971 as part of a much longer article showing deception about the true story of the Black Panthers.”

Here’s the portion of The New Yorker account that Stranahan calls attention to: “Shortly after 9 p.m. on April. 6, 1968, Officers Nolan R. Darnell and Richard R. Jensen, while on patrol in the area of Oakland, California, that is predominately inhabited by blacks, stopped their patrol car on Union Street next to a parked 1954 Ford when they caught a glimpse of a man crouching at the curb side of the car. In their report, they said that they suspected he might be trying to steal it.

“Moments later, while investigating the situation, both officers were hit by bullets fired from behind them. Afterward, forty-nine bullet holes were found in the police car, the rear window had ‘two large areas shot inward,’ and the side windows and the open door, next to which Darnell was standing at the time, had also been hit numerous times. According to medical reports prepared by Dr. William Mills, Jr., of Samuel Merritt Hospital, Darnell was wounded in the ‘upper right back.’ Jensen, apparently hit by a shotgun blast from a 12-gauge shotgun, suffered multiple wounds in the ‘lower right back,’ in the ‘right arm,’ and in the ‘right ankle and foot.’ According to Darnell, a number of men armed with shotguns and rifles ran from cars parked behind and ahead of the 1954 Ford, some of them through an alley into the block across the street, while Darnell urgently called for help on the police radio.”

A Response from Independent Lens and Filmmaker Stanley Nelson

“Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” is a first person documentary featuring a wide variety of voices, with each participant recounting the history as they remember and experienced it.  When we set out to make the film, we made the decision that there would be no narration. We wanted the story to be told through the direct testimony of those who were there — Black Panther members, FBI agents, police, white supporters and detractors — as well as additional context from historians.

In making a two-hour film about a subject as complex and contentious as the Black Panthers, it was just not possible to completely deconstruct every incident in their history. The exact circumstances of the shooting of Bobby Hutton were and remain contested, as the film reveals. What is not contested — and what the film does not conceal — is that the shooting was the result of an armed retaliation by the Panthers to the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Historian Donna Murch says in the film that, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Eldridge Cleaver had the idea of "actively attacking the police.” The archival footage of police reports in the film state that police officers were fired upon during a routine investigation. And while some claim that Bobby Hutton was shot while trying to flee, what is clear from the archival testimony of Panther members is that they believed that he was shot and killed while trying to surrender. That belief — whether correct or incorrect — led directly to Eldridge Cleaver's flight to Algeria and an increased distrust of the authorities by the Panthers, a major change in the Black Panthers narrative and the point we were trying to make in the film.

Mr. Stranahan and others have claimed that the film glorifies the Panthers’ history and glosses over the violence they committed; others have said the film is unfairly negative in its portrayal of the Panthers and their leadership. We aimed to neither glorify nor demonize the Black Panthers and hope to have presented an exploration of their time and place and legacy as told by those who were there. 

My Thoughts

In my first column on the Panther film, aside from citing the good reviews the film received, I also noted some critical observations within some of those reviews and added one or two of my own, including the need for more in the film on the killing of another police officer, John Frey.

But I concluded: “On balance, though, as a viewer, I was grateful for this film. I thought it was powerful, skillfully done, a real public service and a history, as Kenneth Turan writes in The Los Angeles Times, of 'an organization that stubbornly resists being pigeonholed. The Black Panther Party emerges from this documentary with its significance enhanced but some of its tactics questioned.’”

I have no reason to change my overall sense of this film. But in my first column I also said that “I thought Independent Lens was too sparse in responding to the three substantive challenges that were offered by Stranahan and Breitbart,” and I have that feeling once again with respect to aspects of this latest challenge and exchange.

For example, the account in The New Yorker cited by Stranahan certainly sounds like a big gunfight — apparently started by the Panthers, with more than 50 shots fired at police — that, it seems to me, deserved at least some more attention in a two-hour film. The film captures none of the drama of that exchange, showing a police spokesman at a press conference at the time saying only: “The Oakland Police stated that they were fired upon during a routine investigation of a suspicious person and after a short search cornered Hutton and Eldridge Cleaver in the basement of a nearby house.”

And, while the film shows Panther members claiming that Hutton was shot while walking out of the house, the alternate circumstance claimed by police, that he was trying to flee, was not mentioned or explored in the film, as Stranahan points out. And that specific point is not addressed directly, as I read it, in the Independent Lens response. 

Presenting this film without narration and only through the many voices of those who lived it added to its power. But some narration, or additional interviews, might have been able to more fully capture the complexity of these episodes.   

I don’t buy at all the inflammatory, over-the-top headline on top of Stranahan’s latest effort: “Agitprop: PBS’ ‘Black Panthers’ Film Lies to Incite Racial Hatred.” I think this was a powerful, important film that educated rather than inflamed. But I also still feel, as I did back in February, that Independent Lens has been "too sparse" in responding to some of the challenges.

Posted on April 22, 2016 at 12:48 p.m.

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