Television viewers may know, because of the immense publicity the series has received, that VH-1 has been running a documentary series this entire past week on the legacy of the 1960’s, that will end on Friday with the long-awaited documentary by Barbara Kopple, “Woodstock Now and Then.” I have not seen Kopple’s film, but one thing is certain, she knows how to make a good film, and has been at it for decades.
The series has had entries so far on Muhammad Ali, Timothy Leary and Cheech and Chong. But last night, the network broadcast what might just be the single worst, biased, and uninformative documentary ever made. Titled “Lords of the Revolution,” its take on The Black Panther Party is so bad that I suspect even Michael Moore would be embarrassed to rate it with anything higher than a C-.
Here is VH-1’s summary of the program:
In the last 6os, there were few radical groups more controversial that The Black Panthers. Led by the dynamic personalities of Bobby Seale, Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, the Panthers boldly challenged white America to deliver justice and opportunity for all. Armed with guns and clad with berets and leather jackets, the Panthers advocated self-defense; initiated social service programs nationwide; and became a defiant symbol of Black Power. They also become a target as the FBI and police waged a bloody war to bring the party down.
You get the idea. They reproduce the Panther’s old 60’s propaganda about themselves. Brought up to date with remembrances spoken by aging Panthers like Bobby Seale and Kathleen Cleaver, and other supporters like their counsel Gerald Lefcourt, the film has one point of view: the Panthers were great heroes; they led the black revolution; they served the people with efforts like the free breakfast program for children in the Oakland ghetto, and they opposed the oppressive police presence in the ghetto in which the cops treated the regular people as enemies.
If anything went wrong with the Panthers, there was one reason: the FBI infiltration of the group through J. Edgar Hoover’s Cointelpro program and the attacks on the group by both the Bureau and police departments in Oakland and throughout the nation. As Hoover, Nixon or Reagan are shown, the music suddenly turns dark and dramatic, in case the viewer does not realize these are villains. When Huey Newton and company are shown, the music is lively and dramatic, so you know we are seeing heroes.
The film is so one-sided, that even the Panthers’ torture of Alex Rackley, who was held hostage and killed in a Panther safe house in New Haven, Connecticut, is whitewashed.
The Panthers killed Rackley, according to the film, because they were infiltrated by the FBI and were paranoid about enemies. The FBI made them do it! Missing is the testimony and confession of the Panthers who killed Rackley, who did it for ideological reasons, and because they were ordered to kill the 19 year old by Bobby Seale. You can read the grisly details of what torture they inflicted on him here. Needless to say, you will not hear about any of this in the documentary. After all, the Panthers did no harm to anyone, unless the FBI provoked them. Telling the truth would harm the film’s narrative.
Then there is the film’s laudatory treatment of Huey Newton, depicted as a hero of the movement. They cannot escape from letting viewers know the Huey died in a gun battle in 1989 with a drug dealer, which took place when he was trying to take over the Oakland drug trade from competing dealers. They mention a few times that Newton was a regular cocaine user, but the film’s script implies that he was driven to this low end by the relentless battle waged against him by the “pigs,” as the Panthers called the police, and the Federal government. As the filmmakers see it, Huey was brought down because he became a moderate and split the movement, and started using cocaine. (Evidently cocaine has that effect on revolutionaries.)
The film uses the term revolution and revolutionary many times, but never explains the Panther’s Maoism, their commitment to Marxism-Leninism, and their unique version of the jargon as substituting leadership of the world revolution to blacks in America and Third World people abroad, all of whom were being exploited by the imperialist American fascist state. Viewers are never given any adequate explanation of the doctrinal differences between Newton, its hero, and Eldridge Cleaver, who fled to Algeria and North Korea (although they never mention his presence in Kim Il Sung’s paradise) before returning to America a chastened and reformed man. Cleaver is accused of favoring revolutionary war while Newton is depicted as the moderate, although the film never tells us that before his death, Cleaver was the one who became the real moderate.
Indeed, Cleaver became a born-again Christian and a Republican, who spoke for Republican Party events and who supported Ronald Reagan in his bid for the Presidency in 1980 and 1984. Cleaver, as journalist Kate Coleman revealed, admitted that he and the Panthers had ambushed the police in a major 1968 attack in the Oakland ghetto, which they claimed had been a police attack on their peaceful movement, that was only using guns for self-defense. The movie could easily have interviewed Coleman for a different analysis. She lives in the Berkeley area where they filmed, but Coleman, once a Panther defender and a woman of the political left, is of course never on screen as a talking head.
Nor did they seek to interview Sol Stern, the journalist who brought them to national attention with a major story in The New York Times Magazine in August of 1967, which featured the now famous photo and later poster of Panther “Minister of Defense” Huey Newton sitting in a wicker chair holding a rifle in one hand and a spear in another. As Stern acknowledges today, his laudatory story is not one he would adhere to anymore. As he writes, “I understood that I should have described Newton and his cadres as psychopathic criminals, not social reformers.” As for why they self-destructed, Stern nails the real reason: “The Panthers self-destructed because of the murderous violence and larceny they imposed on their own community.”
Stern thinks that today “no one but a left wing crank could still believe in the Panther myth of dedicated young blacks ‘serving the people’ while heroically defending themselves against unprovoked attacks by the racist police.” It’s a lucky thing Stern is in Israel for the summer, where VH-1 is not available.
Additional reading that VH-1 producers somehow ignored:
Any of Kate Coleman’s articles on the Panthers. You can find links to them on her website, by clicking on her article archive.
Hugh Pearson’s 1995 book, Shadow of the Panther: The Price of Black Power in America.
The 2005 paperback edition of David Horowitz and Peter Collier’s Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the 60’s.
Since writing this, David Horowitz has made his own observations on News Real at Frontpagemag.com. I Reprint them here:
Celebrating Sixties Gangsters On VH1 by David Horowitz
2009 August 13Leave a comment
Last night VH1’s on going celebrations of the Sixties hit a high and a low. The high was hit by an edited version of Monterey Pop (Canned Heat and Ravi Shankar hit the cutting room floor) which captures the delightful absurdities of the decade, although the drug fog which was not so delightful is much in evidence in the glazed expressions of the attendees. I can’t think of any more exciting live performance caught on tape than Joplin’s show stopper Love is Like a Ball and Chain.
But right after this came a promotional film for the black Panthers who raped and murdered their way through the end of the decade becoming icons of credulous progressives in the process. My friend Ron Radosh has blogged the film admirably, although he misses one salient point. This film is certainly dishonest but also not a little absurd in its attempt to make an alcoholic half-wit the hero of the Panther story. Bobby Seale was a blowhard even in the Panther hey day and had no influence on the direction of the party despite his title of chairman because he was simply Huey Newton’s punk. Newton was a thug and physically dominated and intimidated Seale who didn’t leave the party in disgust over Newton’s drug addiction as he claims in the film but was beaten up and then buggered by Newton and thrown out over a ludicrous quarrel about a film Huey wanted to star in. The aggrandizement of pathetic as well as criminal behavior when the perps are black is so essential to the leftist religion that even fifty years later progressives cannot handle the truth. The much maligned George Bush once referred to the racism of low expectations, but even he couldn’t imagine a film promoting black revolutionaries and stone-cold killers which blames every single bad turn in their history on clever white cops. Did Eldridge and Huey go to war over whether to start an armed struggle in America? J. Edgar Hoover made them do it — and he did so by writing fake poison pen letters and dropping them in their mailboxes! Did Ericka Huggins boil water so Alex Rackley’s torturers could pour it on his chest before the Panthers took him into the woods to execute him An “informant” made her do it. (Well, to be honest the fact about Ericka is omitted from the VH1 travesty, which however ascribes the entire Rackley affair to the police.)
This film was obviously the work of Seale and Kathleen Cleaver who once referred to Stalin as “a brother off the block” and who backed her husband — a covicted rapist (also not mentioned in the film) — through at least one gangland execution in Algiers. It is a pretty savage (and petty) payback to Newton, not to mention other prominent members of the Panther’s gang, including Elaine Brown, Masai Hewitt, David Hilliard and Geronimo Pratt, all of whom are missing from the film. Shame on VH1 for trafficking in this muck and for enablers like Gerald Lefcourt and promoters like Chuck D for being such diehards in so sordid a cause, and actor James Cromwell for actually weeping on camera over a bunch of sorry-assed thugs.