“Serving the People”: A Review of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

“Serving the People”: A Review of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

As singer Beyoncé and her team of black beret and leather-sporting background dancers reminded viewers during the Super Bowl halftime show, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party. In October 1966, Party co-founders Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton began working on building an armed self-defense organization to protect black Oaklanders from police brutality months before. Yet, in the early fall of 1966, according to co-founder Bobby Seale, they finally huddled in an Oakland anti-poverty center to hammer out the organization’s ideology and demands.1

The Party’s founding document, What We Want, What We Believe,” featured a complex mix of black power politics that included armed self-defense, anti-capitalism, constitutionalism, anti-imperialism, and socialism. While filmmaker Stanley Nelson, Jr.’s documentary on the Panthers, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, does not fully capture the nuances of the organization’s politics and internal dynamics, it successfully introduces viewers to the Party, many of its key members, the organization’s political and cultural contributions to the Black Power Movement, and the group’s struggles to survive state repression.

Vanguard of the Revolution incorporates a range of interviews with journalists, lawyers, law enforcement officers, historians, and Panthers. The documentary includes interviews from many Panthers. While the film does not feature living well-known Panthers such as co-founder and national chairman Bobby Seale and chief of staff David Hilliard, it does include prominent Panthers such as Erika Huggins, artist and minister of culture Emory Douglas, communications secretary Kathleen Neal Cleaver, and former chairwoman Elaine Brown. The film hits many of the high notes and details the organization’s police patrols, the Free Huey Movement, the Party’s international history, state repression, the Party’s split, and its foray into electoral politics. It also references several of the Party’s contradictions and shortcomings, such as the organization’s sexism, its internal discipline, and Newton’s erratic, violent behavior in the Party’s later stages. The documentary aims to be national, but it mostly focuses on the Oakland, Chicago, and New York chapters.

The images of police brutality and the Party’s armed self-defense politics — armed patrols and its general willingness to pick up the gun — should resonate with any viewer following and/or participating in the Black Lives Matter movement. The documentary stresses the legality of their self-defense strategy with a scene showing a black beret-wearing Newton reciting the local ordinances and U.S. Constitution protecting their rights to bear arms. The Panthers’ patrols and their armed demonstration at the California state capitol in May 1967 provoked local and state government (including Governor Ronald Reagan) to call for, and pass, gun control. Their advocacy of gun control recalls how authorities have treated African Americans who carry guns as a social and political threat. It also reminds viewers how the mid-to-late-1960s represented a much different time than our contemporary moment when conservative elected officials oppose gun control at every turn.

Panthers at a Free Huey rally in Defermery Park, Oakland, CA, 1968. (Stephen Shames/PBS)
Panthers at a Free Huey rally in Defermery Park, Oakland, CA, 1968. (Stephen Shames/PBS)

The film presents the Free Huey Movement as the zenith of the Party’s popularity and influence. In October 1967, Newton was charged with the death of police officer John Frey. Facing felony charges and the death penalty, Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver, Bobby Seale, and the rest of the Panthers mobilized the organization and other allies to support their leader. Billed as the “Free Huey” movement, the organization expanded its support among non-blacks. The organization raised substantial financial resources and it raised its public profile. As historian Donna Murch, who is also featured in the film, wrote in her book on the Panthers, Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party, “The representation of the Panthers as victims of violence rather than its perpetrators made them sympathetic to a much larger segment of the public.”2 The jury convicted Newton of voluntary manslaughter on September 8, 1968 and sentenced him to prison for two to fifteen years. Newton’s conviction was overturned by the California Court of Appeals almost two years later.3

No analysis or story of the Panthers can ignore the state repression they faced and here, Vanguard of the Revolution treads familiar ground. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s war against the Panthers is well-known. Hoover sought to use the Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, neutralize or otherwise eliminate” the Panthers and other “black nationalist hate groups.” To accomplish this goal, the FBI used informants, sent letters to leaders to sow division within and between organizations, and it even worked with local police to kill leaders, as was the case with Chicago Panther Chairman Fred Hampton’s December 4, 1969 assassination. The film, as well as much of the Panther literature, acknowledges that COINTELPRO simultaneously brought individual Panthers closer together, as they started staying in “Panther pads,” while also deepening suspicion among the organization’s members and leaders. Yet, except for showing a scrolling list of Panther chapters and the inclusion of an old interview of informant William O’Neal, the film really does not illustrate the scope of the program.

While Vanguard of the Revolution features many highlights from the Party’s history, the documentary also obscures the historical context and the organization’s radicalism. It also raises many questions about the organization’s politics and its demise. It is reasonable to argue that the Panthers served as the epicenter of Black Power politics during the mid-to-late-1960s. Yet, the film gives little sense of Newton’s or Seale’s origins or who influenced the organization politically and ideologically. Fortunately, recent books on the Party by scholars like Donna Murch, Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin, Jr. contribute Newton’s and Seale’s backstories.4 Murch argues that black migrants’ struggles with discrimination in housing, education, and employment, as well as deindustrialization, served as a crucial backdrop for the development of the Party. Both Seale’s and Newton’s families were among those who migrated from the South and encountered racism in California.

The Panthers emerged in the midst of a resurgent black nationalism shaped by radical anti-colonial struggles abroad and nurtured by key activists such as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael and organizations such as the Nation of Islam and the Revolutionary Action Movement. Panther leaders Seale, Newton, and Cleaver saw themselves as carrying on Malcolm X’s legacy. Yet, the Panthers also integrated a Marxist-based organizing strategy as they appealed to what they called “the brothers on the block,” or the lumpenproletariat.5 The existence of other black radical organizations such as Detroit’s Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) illustrates the limits of the Party’s political reach. Detroit activists did establish a small Panther chapter.

Third World Women's Alliance marching in support of Angela Davis, 1972.
Third World Women’s Alliance marching in support of Angela Davis, 1972.

However, thinking about why particular chapters struggled illustrates how black power politics was as much local as national. While black radicals in Detroit sought to address police brutality and political repression, DRUM’s politics sought to address the plight of black industrial workers in the city’s auto plants. One of the lessons of post-1965 black activism was that black America boasted multiple radicalisms — DRUM’s black working class radicalism centered in the city’s auto industry, the Third World Women’s Alliance’s black feminist politics critiquing intra-racial gender relations in the movement, and of society in general, and Angela Davis’s communist prison abolitionism.

Vanguard of the Revolution also papers over the Panther’s radicalism. In the documentary, Panther activist Phyllis Jackson acknowledges the organization’s radical politics when she discusses the Panther’s opposition to capitalism as part of the group’s resistance to oppression. The organization, however, evolved into a socialist group that sought to build coalitions with radicals at home and abroad. Newton described the Party’s political trajectory to a group of students at Boston College in 1970: “In 1966 we called our Party a Black Nationalist Party. […] Shortly after that we decided that what was really needed was revolutionary nationalism, that is, nationalism plus socialism.”6 Seale argued in his book, Seize the Time, “We fight racism with solidarity. […] We fight capitalism with basic socialism. […] We fight imperialism with proletarian internationalism.”7 The Panthers’ support for radical politics also enabled them to help finance the organization. For example, they sold Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book on Berkeley’s campus to raise money for the Party.

The film’s discussion of the organization’s ten point plan is also incomplete. There is not a point where the film acknowledged all ten of the points. Examining “What We Want, What We Believe” illustrates the complexities of the organization’s radical politics. For instance, the Party’s call for full employment is a demand historically shared by socialists and the left-wing of the Democratic Party. The addition of the call for a United Nation-supervised plebiscite to the tenth point of the plan was not mentioned in the documentary. It reflects the organization’s attempt to apply the theory of “internal colonialism” to African Americans. Eldridge Cleaver and other Party members, like many black radicals during the mid-to-late 1960s, argued that African Americans living in cities constituted colonial subjects. Finally, the documentary leaves out the Panthers’ sixth point that demanded military exemptions for African American men. The Party viewed the U.S. as a primary agent of imperialism seeking to quell revolution in the Third World. Their appeal reflects the salience of the anti-war movement and black anti-imperialism, in general, during the 1960s.

Highlighting Panther radicalism would illustrate the organization’s expansive political imagination. Yet, their radicalism also gives more context to the organization’s survival programs. The rationale of these initiatives — free breakfast programs, People’s Free Health Clinics, and their Liberation Schools–is reflected in the Panther’s slogan, “survival pending revolution.” The programs served as an effort for Panthers to deliver immediate relief to African Americans and to illustrate how their politics could work in a context devoid of external repression. The film’s illustration of the breakfast program and Panther pads invites discussions of the group’s sexism and its struggle to overturn its gendered division of labor. Women carried guns while some men served breakfast. Historian Clayborne Carson mentions how women oversaw much of the Party’s day-to-day operations once the organization began to emphasize the survival programs over armed self-defense. The documentary also fails to recognize that Elaine Brown served as Chairwoman of the Party during the mid-1970s. Yet, the occasional disruption of gender roles did not eliminate the Party’s sexism and misogyny.

Charles Bursey at one of the Black Panthers' Free Breakfast Program locations. (Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch/PBS)
Charles Bursey at one of the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast Program locations. (Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch/PBS)

While the documentary briefly covers the breakfast program and Liberation School, it focuses less on the organization’s health care activism. In her book, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, sociologist Alondra Nelson argued that the Panthers were “not only a standard-bearer of the black power movement. It was also a significant ‘health social movement’ — that is, an organization that challenged health inequality, in this case, by supplementing access to medical services, contesting biomedical authority, and asserting healthcare as a right.”8 Members of various chapters established People’s Free Medical Clinics in Kansas City, Chicago, Seattle, and Portland before Bobby Seale mandated that all locals create clinics in 1970.9

The conclusion of the documentary may leave viewers with more questions than answers. Much of the last fifteen minutes ruminates on Newton’s conduct. One of the members refers to Newton’s descent into drug use and his physical and sexual assaults on members, including Bobby Seale, but the film offers little in the way of detail. Former Panther Chairwoman, Elaine Brown, documents how Newton had his bodyguard beat Seale with a bullwhip for failing to defend Newton’s character.10 Newton then expelled Seale. According to literary scholar Margo V. Perkins, Seale omits any mention of his violent expulsion in his autobiography, A Lonely Rage.11

Even though Brown references Newton’s drug use, Seale’s violent expulsion, and the rest of the purges, she criticized the filmmaker for his portrayal of Newton. In her critique of the film for The Daily Beast, Brown charges, “His film, a collage of personalized vignettes by erstwhile and self-professed Party members, culminating in the complete excoriation of the Party’s guiding genius, Huey P. Newton, is at once shocking and disappointing. It is also condemnable.” Brown’s comments underscores the delicate question that scholars of the Panthers have had to address: How to write an honest and nuanced history of an organization that many have deemed criminal? As my discussion of the Party’s radical politics suggests, the film captures little of Newton’s intellectual prowess. Instead, he is presented mostly as the Party’s charismatic leader who succumbed to paranoia and violence. Clearly, one should not deny Newton’s, nor the Party’s, shortcomings. Nor should one discount Newton’s contributions to the black radical tradition — his evolving analyses of race, sexuality, class, and economic development. While Brown’s criticism of the movie may reflect a wish to protect the Party’s legacy, the goal for scholars is to continue to push those interested in the Party’s history to contextualize and hold the Panthers’ contributions and contradictions in tension.

Further Reading

Bloom, Joshua and Waldo E. Martin, Jr. Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.

Brown, Elaine. A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992.

Foner, Philip S., ed. The Black Panthers Speak. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1995.

Hilliard, David and Donald Weise, eds. The Huey P. Newton Reader. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002.

Murch, Donna Jean. Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Nelson, Alondra. Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.


  1. Bobby Seale, Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), 59. Return to text.
  2. Donna Murch, Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 149. Return to text.
  3. Peniel Joseph, Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006), 237-238, 250. Return to text.
  4. Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013); Murch, Living for the City. Return to text.
  5. Seale, 64. In Marxist thought, the lumpenproletariat refers to various segments of social outcasts (i.e. criminals) who are at the bottom of society. Karl Marx did not view this portion of society as consequential in class struggle. Newton and Seale thought they constituted the most revolutionary force as long as they underwent the proper political education. Return to text.
  6. Toni Morrison, ed., To Die for the People: The Writings of Huey P. Newton (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2009), 31. Return to text.
  7. Seale, 71. Return to text.
  8. Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 18. Return to text.
  9. Ibid., 90. Return to text.
  10. Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992), 351. Return to text.
  11. Margo V. Perkins, Autobiography as Activism: Three Black Women of the Sixties (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2000), 126-127. Return to text.

Austin C. McCoy is a Phd Candidate in History at the University of Michigan. He is writing a dissertation on progressives' responses to plant closings and urban fiscal crises in the Midwest during the 1970s and 1980s.