It's understandable that Eldridge Cleaver would consider Panther "a travesty." Cleaver, who in the '60s was minister of information for the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, is a character in director Mario Van Peebles' new film, and he doesn't come off especially well. He's presented as a hothead who can't follow the levelheaded orders of his superiors, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, but goes out cop-killing.
Seale doesn't much like the film, either. He's been quoted recently saying, "The average person is going to think these guys were street-gang types. But we were part of a young black intelligentsia. We were avid readers. We studied the whole history of African Americans." Of the movie, Seale said, "It's a false rip-off of the story of the Black Panther Party and he twisted it and turned it and chronologically screwed it up." There's a bit of irony in Seale's comments, because he, too, is a character in the film, and, as played by Courtney B. Vance, he seems exactly like a member of a young black intelligentsia, well-read, sensible and not prone to violence. He's probably the most likable character, yet his brother and sister Panthers, like co-founder Huey Newton (Marcus Chong), are hardly depicted as "street-gang types."
But, suspicions of self-interest aside, it must be said that both Seale and Cleaver are substantially right. Panther is an audaciously free mixture of invented and historical characters and incidents, of fact and folklore, conspiracy theory and simple action picture. It's twisted and turned and screwed up chronologically. And even if it were scrupulously accurate, it would still be a travesty as cinema--but an entertaining and goodhearted travesty.
That's good enough for me, because Panther, rather amusingly, is not a political film. The historical Black Panthers, a Maoist sect founded by Newton and Seale in response to police brutality in Oakland in the autumn of 1966, have been seen as both good guys and bad guys. I'd guess they were a bit of both, but agenda-free history on the subject isn't easy to come by. Van Peebles, however, is concerned with history only insofar as it can be used to generate fast-moving, exuberant melodrama.
The Panthers whom Van Peebles, working from a script by his father, Melvin Van Peebles, presents in Panther are pure good guys, practically knights of the round table. They feed the poor and defenseless, their socializing is idyllic and racially integrated, and, in one way (reportedly the film's most egregious distortion), they do the boys from Camelot one better--the male Panthers treat the female Panthers as equals. The hero is Judge (Kadeem Hardison), a young Vietnam vet who first encounters the fledgling party during a campaign to get a stoplight installed at a dangerous intersection in a black neighborhood in Oakland. He's gradually drawn into membership. Judge is fictitious, one of those audience-surrogate heroes who moves through a backdrop of famous figures and events. He moves rather too slowly for Van Peebles, who, busily sweeping the action forward at a headlong pace, keeps forgetting about poor Judge and has to insert scenes at intervals to remind us that he's in the picture.
We're shown the skirmishes between the calm, self-assured Panthers and vicious, sneering police. We see the persecution of the Panthers by the satanic J. Edgar Hoover (Richard Dysart). We see a clash between the Panthers and a like-named group of phony, "Afrocentric" poseurs whom the Panthers feel give the Revolution a bad name. We see Newton jailed for killing a cop in self-defense and the legal efforts to get him freed. Then, near the end, we see the supposed payoff for having a fictional hero. The feds make a deal with organized crime to flood the ghettos with cheap heroin in order to ruin the party, so Judge and two of his pals raid a warehouse and destroy the first load of the social poison. It's a symbolic gesture of defiance that also smells quite a lot like a contrived action climax. The audience is likely to see this for what it is, and Van Peebles and son come up with a splendid, stinging joke to cap it. After all that chaos, they arc the film back to the stoplight from the beginning, as if to say, "This is what our community has to go through just for a lousy stoplight."
All of this is thrown at us in the same hyperkinetic, willy-nilly style that Van Peebles fils showed in his first two efforts as director, the gangster film New Jack City and the Western Posse. They're overstuffed with characters, the narrative strands keep getting tangled up or lost in the rapid-fire, music-video editing and details established in a second or two become major plot factors 40 minutes later in the film. Yet there's something about all three of these scattershot, crazily overambitious films that's deeply agreeable. I think it's that Van Peebles seems, as young black artists go, amazingly free of anger. Van Peebles the elder wrote, directed and starred in the first of the "angry black" underground films, the famous/notorious Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song of 1971. (He's in Panther briefly, as an old jailhouse cynic who remarks that if blacks had guns, they'd shoot each other.) Huey Newton was an enthusiastic admirer of that film, and is said to have made viewing it mandatory for party members.
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The outrage gene seems to have skipped a generation--Van Peebles the younger comes across like a good-natured, Hollywood-liberal showman who wants to please his audience. He's the opposite of Spike Lee, who sometimes blunts or ignores his own intellectual honesty to make nationalistic points. Van Peebles, more modestly talented than Lee, but with an openhearted desire to entertain rather than lecture, creates a much more breathable atmosphere in his films.
So Panther is exciting, enjoyable and, at times, silly. But if it's a travesty on any level other than the aesthetic, it isn't one bit more so than, say, They Died With Their Boots On, which made a hero of Custer, or John Wayne's The Green Berets, which detailed how wonderful the U.S. was for Vietnam, or Santa Fe Trail, with its dashing young cadets Jeb Stuart and George Custer (Ronald Reagan!), and its wicked, psychotic abolitionist John Brown.
More recently, what about Mississippi Burning, with its obscene implication that the FBI was dedicated to aiding the cause of the civil rights movement? Or, for the supreme example, what about D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation--the first movie ever shown at the White House--the hero of which was a Ku Klux Klansman? Nothing is more in the tradition of the historical epic than revisionism--Richard III probably wasn't even a hunchback, and most modern historians believe that he didn't conspire in the deaths of the two young princes, either.
Considering the Rashomon that accounts of recent history tend to produce, it would probably have been impossible to make a film about the Panthers that wouldn't tick off somebody. In all likelihood, if Panther had been helmed by anyone other than the easygoing younger Van Peebles, it would have ticked off a lot more people, a lot more intensely. Bobby Seale complained that the film was a bunch of "poetic lies"; he meant this negatively, but it rings pretty mild. Actually, it makes a pretty fair definition of the art of fiction. It calls to mind the comment that Woodrow Wilson, having just seen The Birth of a Nation, is said to have made about the new art of cinema: "It's like writing history with lightning." He was right, for better and worse--lightning is great when it comes to spectacle, but unreliable as a scribe.