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.