For nearly three decades, some of Hollywood's most powerful African-American players have labored unsuccessfully to bring the story of the Black Panther Party to the big screen. The father/son filmmaking duo of Melvin and Mario Van Peebles have managed to make the dream come true, and "dreamlike" is certainly the word to describe the finished product: Panther is as dynamic, dense, visceral and astonishingly turgid as any nocturnal fantasy, and it's a lot less coherent than most.
It's packed with some five dozen speaking parts for actors whose work ranges from incandescent to pathetically inadequate; it's a film shot through with brilliant touches that illustrate nothing, and promising scenes and subplots that lead nowhere.
The problem, as with Mario Van Peebles' last picture, Posse, is that there's simply too much going on. The film jumps from one high point to the next without any sense of rhythm, proportion or common sense. The film's on-again, off-again protagonist, a recently returned Vietnam vet named Judge (Kadeem Hardison), is symptomatic of the film's problems. A neighborhood hanger-on who joins the Panthers, he's used by the FBI and cops as a planted informant, then used in turn by the Panthers as a double agent. He's simultaneously inside and outside of the narrative, recounting major points of historical interest, yet shut off from the inner workings of the group.
His psychic turmoil rings hollow because the Van Peebles have used it as a peg on which to hang a Deep Cover-style identity crisis melodrama. It might be interesting in another movie, but here the device diverts attention from what ought to be the film's central function: taking us inside the minds of this bold band of urban guerrillas and telling their stories with gut-crunching, personal immediacy.
The filmmakers seem to have realized at the 11th hour that they made a mistake. And during the final third of the picture, Judge and his much-hyped conflicted loyalties simply vanish -- subsumed in a visual tsunami of shootouts, strategy sessions, slapstick interludes, domestic soul-baring sessions, romantic subplots, conspiratorial musings and music-video montages that detail the rise of the Panthers from a loose-knit group of Bay-area radicals into a controversial force for political change.
The film is generally well-cast, with laudable work from Marcus Chong and Courtney B. Vance as Panther co-founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale; M. Emmett Walsh and Joe Don Baker as bigoted white San Francisco cops who oppose them; and the incendiary character actors Tyrin Turner (Menace II Society) and Bokeem Woodbine (Jason's Lyric) as hot-tempered Panther followers. But the junior Van Peebles also continues his less-than-honorable tradition of stuffing his movies with pointless cameos by musicians, comedians and political figures, including Bobby Brown, Chris Rock, Dick Gregory and the late Jerry Rubin. In a dramatic context, such casting only serves to distract viewers from the film's message and meaning -- to expose it as a lavishly produced Hollywood movie stocked with play-acting celebrities.
The glitz factor becomes more problematic in light of the film's emphasis on violent resistance (and violence, period), which forms the least permanent component of the Panther Party's legacy. The film pays only rudimentary attention to the group's educational and political activities -- its campaigns against illiteracy and on behalf of voter registration, its free meal program for impoverished schoolkids and other tangible accomplishments, and it torques up action sequences to an insanely high pitch whenever possible.
Granted, you can't expect viewers to flock to a Hollywood biopic about a bunch of poor kids eating Wheaties, but, even so, the film's emphasis seems slightly unsavory. Panther's action sequences are staged so much more inventively and enthusiastically than almost any other element that you gradually begin to suspect Mario Van Peebles' primary talent is as a choreographer of up-close mayhem -- a Joel Silver in the making.
In a protracted, preposterous and wholly contrived finale set in a drug warehouse, Peebles also invents events from whole cloth, which wouldn't be a problem if they served the film's thematic or dramatic purposes. The blowout climax, which comes on the heels of a needlessly tacked-on conspiracy subplot about the FBI flooding the ghetto with cheap heroin to keep the community docile, tells us nothing about the Panther Party, mythic or real, and everything about the film's pop-culture-crazed director -- who seems to alternate between reading apocalyptic left-wing newsletters, watching Scarface over and over, and trying to figure out a way to fuse the two.
Which is par for the cinematic course. Mario Van Peebles hasn't re-imagined the history of the Panthers. Instead, he's simply filtered it through his movie-going consciousness, reference by bald-faced reference, without transforming either the historical facts or the movie references into anything fresh or informative. When the Panthers storm the California Legislature in protest of Ronald Reagan's attempt to disarm them by changing state gun laws, the scene should be the high point of the picture; it should tell us everything these folks stood for, and everything their enemies were scared of. Instead, the scene comes off as a second-generation echo of scenes from JFK and Malcolm X.
Other scenes suffer from the same poverty of imagination. The sudden film stock switches and punishingly loud soundtrack remind you of Oliver Stone and Spike Lee, the symphonic score is a John Williams pastiche and the pop soundtrack selections offer bass-heavy, rap-inflected remakes and remixes of R&B songs that keep jarring you out of the film's time frame. As New Yorker critic Terence Rafferty once observed of another filmmaker, Mario Van Peebles chews with his mouth open: watching his movies, you can readily identify every piece of art that has fed his imagination. He doesn't appropriate techniques and images from other pictures and make them his own; he isn't inventive enough for that. (One transitional gimmick stands out, though: a pan of Judge moving across his living room toward a TV that has just announced Martin Luther King's assassination becomes a split-screen image of Judge facing newsreel riot footage. It's screwy, brave and inspired. Panther could have used more moments like it.)
Like his films, Mario Van Peebles is an infuriating mixed bag. He has a vibrant, video-age eye, a good ear for conversational dialogue and a strong grasp of how to get an audience riled up. But he's neither a great artist nor a formidable thinker. Like Kenneth Branagh and Oliver Stone, he elicits primal emotions in the crudest way possible -- by tilting the camera to indicate disorientation, filling the soundtrack with ultra-low bass hums to signify that something important is happening and whooshing his camera up to a god's-eye view every time somebody dies. He even has a key villain shoot a cute dog at point-blank range to establish what a mean guy he is -- a sure sign that a filmmaker has no shame.
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It's idiotic to argue that Panther would have been a better film had it hewn more closely to the facts, because art is art and history is history, and one is almost never capable of performing the function of the other. The best a movie can hope to do is convey a generally truthful (and primarily emotional) impression of a time, a place and its people -- to sketch human footprints in the shifting sands of time.
But Panther rarely manages even that. Part of being a good historian is the ability to deftly underline crucial but small moments. There are no small moments in Panther. Quiet scenes are played at an epic pitch and epic scenes can make your ears and eyes bleed. The end result is a gripping, free-form, wildly imprecise riff on history -- a simplistic film about a difficult subject.
Directed by Mario Van Peebles. With Kadeem Hardison, Marcus Chong and Courtney B. Vance.