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Movie Review: ‘The Black Panthers: Vanguard Of The Revolution’ Is Insightful, Timely

By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver are dead, Bobby Seale is 78, Kathleen Cleaver is 70, the events that turned all of them into national figures are decades in the past. So how is it that The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution comes off as the most relevant and contemporary of documentaries?

Part of the answer is that the social crisis that helped to create the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in the 1960s is still very much with us. You only have to hear a network TV newscaster say nearly half a century ago that “relations between police and Negroes throughout the country are getting worse” to feel a frisson of despair at how up to the minute that sounds.

Also a factor is the skill with which writer-director Stanley Nelson has told this story. A veteran documentarian, eight of whose films (including Freedom Summer and The Murder of Emmett Till) have premiered at Sundance, Nelson expertly combines archival footage, photographs, music and his own interviews to assemble the pieces of what is a complicated story.

Nelson understands the play of outsized personalities and unexpected events, and he’s helped that enough time has passed for former Panthers to feel comfortable telling their stories, especially to someone of Nelson’s stature in the documentary world.

Still, none of this was easy, and the Panthers even today remain nothing if not a controversial organization. As former member Ericka Huggins says at the film’s start, “We were making history, and it wasn’t nice and clean. It wasn’t easy. It was complex.”

As if to prove her point, Seale, one of the organization’s founders, did not agree to be interviewed by Nelson, and former party chairwoman Elaine Brown, who did speak, slammed the finished film and asked unsuccessfully to have her interview segments removed.

Despite this brouhaha, the thoughtful approach Nelson takes to the material feels right. He does not look into every skeleton in the organization’s closet, but he doesn’t hesitate to deal with problem areas, including the group’s chauvinism. Though The Black Panthers empathizes with the outrage that brought the party into existence and the pride individual members continue to take in their work, his tone is measured, not incendiary.

Though they evolved into an organization with wide-ranging goals, including decent housing, education, even the dismantling of the capitalist system, the Panthers were started by Newton and Seale as an Oakland self-defense organization dedicated to stopping police brutality. The black panther, Newton said, strikes only if aggression continues.

California gun laws made it legal for citizens to bear arms, and the Panthers got their first publicity break in 1967 when they went to Sacramento to protest a potential change in the statute. When they ended up on the floor of the Legislature (almost by accident, in one account) their black leather jacket and beret look blew people away. As one member recalls, “We had swagger.”

One factor The Black Panthers underscores is how much individual leaders influenced the organization’s actions. Newton was arrested in the shooting death of an Oakland police officer (“Free Huey” became a ’60s battle cry, and he ultimately was released after a hung jury). Writer Eldridge Cleaver, a literary star after writing Soul on Ice, became the face of the party, with mixed results.

As an articulate provocateur whose natural tendency was to escalate a situation, Cleaver’s oratory brought new converts but created other difficulties. “He was a Rottweiler,” says one former member, “an uncontrollable personality.”

While the Panthers worked hard to connect to poor black communities, creating a free breakfast program for schoolchildren that served 20,000 meals a week in 19 communities, their violent rhetoric had made an unswerving, unscrupulous enemy of J. Edgar Hoover, the omnipotent head of the FBI.

Convinced that the Panthers were the biggest threat to national security, Hoover expanded the scope of COINTELPRO, the bureau’s secret counterintelligence division, to include the Panthers and determined to use any means necessary to undermine and destroy the group.

Of all the stories told in Black Panthers, perhaps the saddest is the 1969 death of Fred Hampton, the charismatic 21-year-old chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party who was gunned down by the Chicago police under circumstances so suspicious that a lawsuit brought by the family led to a $1.85 million settlement.

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. Seeming to speak for the film is Stanford history professor Clayborne Carson. “The leaders,” he says sadly, “were not worthy of the dedication of the followers.”

No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Playing: In limited release

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Filmmaker Cautions: Donald Trump Is Nothing To Laugh About

Documentarian Anthony Baxter has some words of caution for voters inclined to treat Donald Trump like a big joke. Despite his bombastic, occasionally laughable persona, Trump is dangerous, Baxter said.

“The main thing,” Baxter said in a phone interview, is that even though he “provides fodder for late-night talk shows” with his “ludicrous statements,” he is not a laughing matter.

“He’s amusing and quite a ridiculous figure,” Baxter said, “but he can be quite a dangerous man, and it’s important for people to realize that.”

Baxter has devoted two films to Trump. The first, You’ve Been Trumped, documented The Donald’s building of a luxury golf course on an environmentally delicate stretch of Scottish coastline. The second, a sequel of sorts, titled A Dangerous Game, widens the scope to include golf course developments taking place all over the world, where local residents are similarly being harassed by developers, ignored by their local governments, and left to deal with the economic and environmental fallout. The new film will be released in the United States on Tuesday.

Golf, Baxter explains, was once a game for everyone: Courses were built in harmony with the natural landscape and the game was open to all walks of life. In the modern state of the sport, however, Baxter found a locus to examine a host of issues related to unchecked capitalism: rising income inequality, eminent domain abuse, and the plundering and poisoning of natural resources (especially water).

The scenario he documented in Scotland in the first film plays itself out in Croatia, Dubai, and China in A Dangerous Game: local governments in thrall to private developers build what are essentially playgrounds for the super-rich in environmentally fragile regions, against the wishes of local residents. As Baxter discovered, there are Donald Trumps all over the world.

When You’ve Been Trumped was first aired on BBC 2 in 2012, its depiction of local residents being bullied, by legal action and the threat of eminent domain, into selling their property to Trump’s organization prompted enormous backlash from viewers. (Baxter himself was arrested in the course of making the film.) It also galvanized Trump, who had previously spurned Baxter’s request for an interview, to sit down for a one-on-one meeting that forms the climax of the new film.

In the interview, he stands by his work, saying he hopes the documentary will include mention of the accolades his new course is receiving.

Regarding Trump’s risible, rambling speech announcing his candidacy, Baxter said what troubled him most was Trump’s assertion that he would be “the greatest jobs president that God ever created.”

But as to Trump’s record on job creation, “the facts speak differently.” Despite his promises to invest heavily in Scotland’s infrastructure, and create 6,000 new jobs, according to Baxter, fewer than 200 were actually created.

“It’s dangerous to give him too much power,” Baxter said. “He makes promises and claims about jobs and investment that don’t stand up to scrutiny.”

“The facts speak for themselves,” he continued. “He does bad things.”

You can view a trailer for A Dangerous Game below. The film will be released in the United States on Tuesday, June 23, and is currently available on iTunes and at

Still via A Dangerous Game

‘Cartoonists: Foot Soldiers For Democracy’ — Fighting For Freedom With A Jest And A Pencil

The cartoon’s power to mock seemingly unassailable authority makes it one of the most potent weapons in democracy’s defense. As a consequence, the artists who create the images — an array of wily, irreverent blasphemers — become unlikely sentries on the front lines in the fight for free expression.

The January massacre at the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo cast renewed attention on the very real dangers cartoonists face from religious extremists. But hundreds of artists continue to work every day under the shadow of possible repercussions from their own governments.

Cartoonists: Foot Soldiers For Democracy, a documentary directed by Stéphanie Valloatto and produced in cooperation with the Cartooning for Peace initiative, is a celebration of the men and women who put their livelihood and liberty on the line to publish their often outlandish, comical artwork, which nonetheless communicates an earnest political message.

The film, which premiered at Cannes last May, prominently features Plantu, the French cartoonist whose work has graced Le Monde for over four decades, and includes interviews with 12 other cartoonists hailing from countries all over the world, among them Russia, Israel, Palestine, Venezuela, and China.

One of the film’s subjects, Jeff Danziger—an American cartoonist whose work appears regularly in The National Memo—said that unlike many of the cartoonists featured in the documentary, U.S.-based artists do not have to contend with censorship on a regular basis, and, outside the occasional terrorist threat, are more isolated from risk. “Most of the other cartoonists [in the film] deal with government oppression,” he said.

The film vividly demonstrates the cartoon’s ability to transcend language barriers, which makes it an essential tool for informing citizens and criticizing those in power. Another cartoonist who speaks in the film, Damien Glez, is based in Burkina Faso, a country where 60 indigenous languages are spoken — several of which are not written down — so cartoons typically end up running on the front page.

Of the cartoons displayed in the film, Danziger said, “A lot of them are funny, but a lot of them are dead serious.”

Jeff Danziger will present and discuss a screening of Cartoonists: Foot Soldiers For Democracy at Harvard Hall (Room 202), Harvard University on Monday, April 13 at 7pm.

You can view the trailer below.

Top Reads For News Junkies: ‘Going Clear’

This week sees the premiere of the HBO documentary Going Clear, inspired by Lawrence Wright’s immensely thorough and disquieting Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. The 2013 book has its origins in a New Yorker profile Wright wrote in 2011 about Oscar-winning filmmaker and Scientology apostate Paul Haggis. Wright’s investigation into the Church of Scientology’s origins, evolution, and alarming tactics for strong-arming the feds and quieting its dissenters is an overdue and much-needed reckoning.

You can purchase the book here.