The title might seem tragic. Stanley Nelson's welcome doc banners the Black Panthers as the "vanguard" of the revolution, a claim that's true according to the Panthers' own terms. The leather-jacketed crew carrying rifles onto the floor of the California state assembly in 1967? That was the berets-and-afros vanguard of the then-nascent Black Panther Party, and that image -- of resistance, of power, of black-is-beautiful Afrocentrism reborn as hard urban cool -- immediately franchised the party in cities across the country. What do you think scared more the powers that be? The Panthers' allure, or their avowed program, which called for the end of the ongoing "terror, brutality, murder, and repression of black people"?
But within half a decade the Panthers would mostly be a memory. Since J. Edgar Hoover declared the Panthers the John Dillingers of the late '60s, Official America has found black anger a useful excuse to crack down on blacks and keep whites terrified. Never mind the Panthers setting up breakfast programs for local kids, or Bobby Seale himself proclaiming, "We don't hate anybody because of their color. We hate oppression."
The film, with its traditional mix of talking heads and vintage footage, is honest about schisms between party members favoring armed insurrection and those who found community improvement a more satisfying and achievable goal than the overthrow of the U.S. government. Panthers, historians, and even some ex-cops attest on camera here that those schisms were encouraged by Hoover's feds. There is reason to hope here. Compare the on-message clarity of #BlackLivesMatter, and it's easy to see that the revolution remains a work in progress -- and that it had a clear vanguard.