Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: The recent release of Gloria Steinem biopic The Glorias and Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial Of The Chicago 7—along with the ongoing protests in the streets of American cities—has us thinking back on other movies about activism.
Mario Van Peebles’ fictionalized drama about the Black Panther Party, Panther, is agitprop theater mixed with the overheated Oliver Stone formula of conspiracies, canted angles, and 1960s America. Nitpicking the unrealistic, didactic dialogue seems beside the point; it’s a movie about politics and oppression in which everybody says their beliefs out loud. But that’s just part of it. Once one factors in the music-video palette and anachronistic undercover tropes, it’s hard not to think that the film is as much about the ’80s and ’90s as it is about the ’60s.
Which is to say that it shouldn’t be mistaken for a credible history lesson. The story is flagrantly fictional, with lots of subplots that involve invented characters. It’s 1966. In Oakland, a Vietnam veteran named Judge (Kadeem Hardison) is drawn to the growing Black Panther Party For Self-Defense and their militant approach to protecting, improving, and liberating their community. He helps them buy guns, and at first they carry them to show the racist Oakland police that they can. Eventually, the Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton (Marcus Chong) asks Judge to allow himself to be recruited as an informant for the cops so he can become a double agent.
The script (by the director’s father, Melvin Van Peebles, of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song fame) is unabashed in its lack of subtlety; its oversimplified timeline of rallies and date stamps makes it very easy to imagine a far drier reading. But the younger Van Peebles meets its bluntness and paranoia with the same broad direction that he brought to the similarly angry New Jack City, aided by a cast overstuffed with the kind of actors who improve anything they’re in just by showing up—among them Bokeem Woodbine, Angela Bassett, Joe Don Baker, and M. Emmet Walsh. (One wishes that Dick Gregory, who appears as a reverend, had acted more.)
At a certain point, the film turns into an outlandish action movie, which apparently really peeved a lot of commentators at the time of its release. In the interest of historical fact-checking, it should that be stated that, no, the Black Panthers did not literally fight a Mafia-FBI-police conspiracy to flood Black neighborhoods with drugs. But from a polemical perspective, they certainly did. These are forces they were trying to resist—groups that had their own, very real conspiracies against Black communities around the country and their own interests in destroying the Black Panthers and other movements. There’s a moment in the film where someone shouts “Fuck Reagan!” One gets the sense that this is not addressed at his then-governorship of California.
Availability: Panther is currently streaming on YouTube.