Although the development of an extensive literature and discourse around the Black Panther Party has been evident and underway for several decades, cinema has oddly fallen short, with a similar breadth of work about the Black Panthers missing from the fiction and feature documentary spheres. Given the media obsession around the Black Panthers, there is a massive amount of archival footage available. Countless shorter media works on the movement and the Party have taken a lot from this available material. Although there have been more experimental works on the topic in recent years,1 Stanley Nelson Jr.’s Vanguard of the Revolution – the first of his three documentaries on African American history – offers the most comprehensive, lengthy and informative look at the organisation and the movement in the documentary mode.
Nelson Jr.’s work finds a strong foundation in the comprehensive range of sources that he uses to illustrate the diversity within the movement. There are over 30 interviewees in the film, the majority of whom were involved with the Panthers. The interviewees who weren’t in the Panthers were typically either involved in city councils, police departments, or another aspect of society in the 60s and 70s, the era at the heart of the work. Through these first-hand accounts, Vanguard of the Revolution is defined by tales of personal experience, rather than through the second-hand ‘friends and family’ style, which so many other documentaries made decades after their focus era are forced to rely upon. Nelson Jr. spent over seven years researching, filming and conducting interviews for the work and as the film progresses, it becomes genuinely surprising how many sources are on screen. Nelson Jr. shows a certain deference to his interviewees, with little of his own commentary throughout. Alongside this, however, is his use of archival footage: newspaper headlines, footage of protests and photos of social initiatives maintain a careful balance between the aforementioned interviews and the archival footage.
Vanguard of the Revolution neither romanticises nor blindly criticises the Black Panthers. Nelson Jr. stresses the social initiatives of the group within the community and the impetus that fuelled their conception; through the voices of his subjects, the film articulates the reason the Black Panthers had to exist, and outlines the frequently overlooked sweeping programs regarding education, breakfasts and community-building that the group was able to enact. There is no shortage of female voices within the documentary and in the context, this overt inclusion is hard to understate. Akua Njeri, Kathleen Cleaver, Ora Williams, Ericka Huggins and Phyllis Jackson offer a diverse range of critiques from women towards the rampant masculinity and frequent sexism within the movement, as well as praises for the social initiatives and massive changes it achieved. In this regard, Nelson Jr. articulates a intricate, detailed and overwhelmingly nuanced portrait of one of the America’s most influential movements.
The lack of frequent narration and the constant focus on both archival history and the stories told by those interviewed makes the intention of Vanguard of the Revolution clear – it’s a work that collates stories and experiences with the Black Panthers in the 60s and 70s; a complex and multi-faceted work of social history. Vanguard of the Revolution is both a film and a historical and educational resource. It offers itself as a thorough study of the rise of the Black Panthers throughout the 60s, as well as the machinations of the United States government (and the FBI) that sought to halt it. At almost two hours, it’s a lengthy work. However, as a resource, this density works largely in the film’s favour. The film doesn’t philosophise or theorise into the content it presents nor does it experiment with the documentary form in any substantive way. It offers itself as a comprehensive, thorough and accessible source on the Black Panthers, as well as the era they emerged out of, and is more than successful in doing just that.