Happy Black History Month, y’all!
So what if I’m a week late?
In honor of this month, I plan to watch and review a few black films that I’ve either never seen before or haven’t seen in too long. Since this month is a whopping 29 days long this year (Wow guys! This is really gonna be our year), and since I can review books, why not take the opportunity to review films that might have gotten lost in the mainstream shuffle?
This means that there will be no Selma and no 12 Years a Slave…sorry. Many of the films I plan to watch for this are going to be either pretty old and/or pretty forgotten, usually because they’re not that great, because they went straight to video, and/or they’re not constantly on BET, VH1, ABC Family, or TNT.1
Note: I sort of got this idea from a blog I remember reading this time last year.
By the way, I’m not even going to acknowledge the 2016 Oscar nomination issue, or the question of why we need a Black History Month, because both arguments have been exhausted. If you don’t get why many people are irked by either, then unfortunately you’re probably never gonna get it.
I’ll start with Panther (1995), a movie I only stumbled across when it showed up in my suggested videos one day on YouTube. It was directed by Mario van Peebles (New Jack City, 1991) and is based on a novel of the same name that was written by his father, director Melvin van Peebles.
I’m not really sure why I’m just now seeing this film; as black biopic-ish movies go, I’ve seen most of the 90s ones: The Jacksons, The Temptations, What’s Love Got to Do With It?. Upon further research, however–well, YouTube comments, because the entire thing can be found on YouTube in one piece–I discovered that this film is ridiculously hard to find on DVD. So that could be why. This film was also never included in our curriculum for reasons that are pretty obvious…
Building off of that, I don’t even remember learning about the Black Panthers in a history course–not in-depth, at least, until undergrad. And that was in a class that focused on black people. Malcolm X, too. I only know Malcolm X’s story because my dad sat me down and read it with me when I was old enough. All of the “radical black people stuff” outside of MLK was learned at home, surely because of how much of a gray area (read: red) they were in in terms of Communism and not really following the whole democracy arc tale that this country seems to be fond of retelling its young people and yahdda yahdda yahdda.
I wasn’t intending on staying awake during the entire thing. It’s over two hours long. You think it’s going to be a typical black biopic at first: It begins with a flash of footage of civil rights demonstrations and whatnot, which are blended with audio and footage of J.F.K. and Malcolm X who are then literally and figuratively blacked out by their respective assassins.
Then you hear Kadeem Hardison, a.k.a. Dwayne Wayne from the 1990s sitcom “A Different World,” speaking about the two men who founded the Black Panther Party. (Another note: I will be referring to Hardison’s character, the protagonist, as Dwayne Wayne for the rest of this post.) We see black-and-white footage of the two actors who are going to be portraying Bobby Seale and Huey Newton for the next two hours (who, by the way, could very well be them if we couldn’t barely tell that the video was filtered to seem like it was old footage. Panther often blends fact and fiction so much so that it becomes slightly confusing [and arguably irritating to someone who is interested in history and constantly Googling things] as to what actually happened and what didn’t. More on this issue in a bit, though.).
Whoa! Super long parenthetical. Sorry if that’s confusing.
So we see these two men, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton on screen, starting trouble and getting arrested by whitey. They’re thrown into jail and commiserate and talk about how the white man’s foot is an “integral part of the black man’s ass,” or something to that effect. And Dwayne Wayne’s voice is narrating about how they’re “just two fed-up brothers. Next thing you know, bam, you got the Black Panther Party of Self-Defense.”
This kind of made me chuckle, but then roll over on my side and decide to give in to the soothing waves of sleep that were beginning to wash over me. Again, I was pretty tired, but I’ve also seen the amazing documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, and the Party’s inception was portrayed much more elegantly than that. No offense to Dwayne Wayne, but “bam–then you got the Black Panther Party?” That’s like saying, “you release a bunch of black people who were once enslaved, and you take some annoyed white people who once enslaved them and nobody to do their work for them, and zoinks! You’ve got Reconstruction.”
No. Just, no.
Anyway, back to the first three minutes of Panther…yes, I know; this film doesn’t sound that exciting at all. Of course you rolled over, you say. Go to sleep! This movie is filth! you say.
Thankfully, van Peebles (such a great name) threw in some oldies music at the beginning. By the way, if you’re going to make a black film that takes place in the 1950s-1970s, you absolutely HAVE to do this. It works. I rolled back over to the screen as “I Feel Good” started to play and Dwayne Wayne talks about how it all started for him and many others: vengeance. It flashes to the present time of the movie, and we see a cute little black boy no older than ten riding his bike through a black sunny California neighborhood.
We assume him to be the Dwayne Wayne, just younger. He’s happy. He’s smiling. He grins at a 30 year-old woman whose dress flies up from the breeze of a passing bus. She smiles down at him while lightly admonishing him at the same time, because boys will be boys, right? “Bernadette” by the Four Tops is playing now. I’m fully back into Panther at this point, because I do love the Four Tops, and I think “Bernadette” is particularly underrated.
And then bam! Spoiler alert, even though it’s literally in the first five minutes so I’m not spoiling anything: The little boy gets hit by a car. Like, what? Gotcha! He wasn’t Dwayne Wayne at all! He was a random boy who represented all of the other black people who’d been killed in the area whom the police didn’t give two hoots about! Look at that. So now we’ve got a film.
The annoyance with a police force that doesn’t care enough about black neighborhoods to put up a stoplight, after so many people have died so many times at a busy intersection, spurs a lot of anger and subsequent support for the B.P.P. in the community. It’s interesting, to say the least, especially when you see that members of the Party physically stand in for stoplights when they realize no one is going to be able to help their people but themselves. It also gets interesting, and somewhat recognizable, when there is a protest of angry black citizens and the white police attack them for protesting. Dwayne Wayne’s mother, who is Will’s Aunt Helen in Fresh Prince and is probably in more black biopics than Angela Bassett, is beaten during the protest. Dwayne Wayne, who is a fictionalized character, defends her from the ruthless white cop and then errbody gets thrown in jail. It’s very anger-inducing and very frustrating.
So thus, Panther very much follows that arc of a Civil Rights Movie at the very beginning–police are all terrible, black people squashed underfoot for no reason but they are black and want a better life. (I’m not saying this isn’t how such times should be portrayed, or how it didn’t happen, but it’s a very familiar formula that we see in pretty much every movie about racism. Very little nuance.)
However, to my pleasure, white people bad/black people only trying to do good isn’t the only story. Such simplicity can’t be the arc for a film about such a complex group. Dwayne Wayne’s apprehension toward joining the Party in the beginning is a nice, new approach to representing such movements. He has to be convinced to join. In this way, I suppose, the lack of information about Huey and Bobby in the beginning of the film becomes okay, because Panther isn’t meant to look at the Party’s politics per se but more so the effects of the Party on the people who were involved with it.
It becomes increasingly more fresh when one considers Dwayne Wayne’s past as a soldier in Vietnam. He was a black man who fought a white man’s war against the yellow man and was injured in doing so. Joining the Panthers might be a conflict of interest to him, because he has been receiving compensation for his injury in battle. His father is dead, and he has dreams. He has a lot to stake. It’s only a matter of time before the police use him as a pawn for infiltration…
So that’s pretty much the movie–will he or won’t he spy? How unethical will The Man become when dealing with the Panthers? How long can the Party last with such radical methods? Is that Angela Bassett playing Betty Shabazz…again??
And why is Bobby Brown in this movie????
So, the takeaway…
Panther does drag on a bit toward the end and starts to unravel, but one can’t help but feel that’s because the Party itself began to unravel (and perhaps I was starting to get tired?).
Also, many of the songs are sung by contemporary hip-hop/R&B singers (i.e. “Stand,” originally sung by Sly & the Family Stone and then the Jackson 5, is sung by Tony! Toni! Tone! Sort of weird.). Still, this convergence of 90s R&B stars with 60s and 70s R&B stars is an interesting way to connect the present with the past. Panther similarly does this in the end of the film, by hinting that the C.I.A. purposely flooded drugs into black communities and this subsequently sparked the drug epidemic of the 1990s. Mentioning the millions of blacks affected by drugs is a significant reminder to people such as myself–people who are watching the film twenty-one years later–of the environment into which this film was released. It’s even more significant considering the drug-related fate of Huey Newton, once a founder of the B.P.P. who scoffed at the people who dealt poison into black communities. It’s all just really sad and depressing.
This film is by no means objective, and is once again highly fictionalized. But overall it is entertaining, and I think it is an important film to watch, mostly due to the lack of representation of the Black Panthers in history. By no means is it Vanguard of the Revolution which, if you haven’t seen by now, PLEASE GO SEE IT NOW. The Back Panthers in general are important for young black people, especially young black men, to learn about.
Additional pluses are that Marcus Chong looks just like Huey Newton, and Dwayne Wayne is good at looking morally conflicted, even without his signature specs.
My next review might be Little Richard (2000), a biopic of the singer, which is also available on YouTube and also stars Jenifer Lewis. Hopefully I will be putting that one up soon. Until then, stay black.
1 I may make an exception for Remember the Titans, which I haven’t seen in awhile, and have been itching to watch. It’s been a very, very long time.