Ron Radosh

PBS Documentary Whitewashes Stalinist Thugs of the Black Panther Party


This fall, PBS is presenting a Sundance Film Festival documentary titled The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution on its “Independent Lens” series.  (check your local TV schedule, and watch the trailer here). PBS describes it this way:

Directed and produced by award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” explores the history of the Black Panthers, founded in 1966 in Oakland, California. The group and its leadership remain powerful and enduring figures in our popular imagination. This film interweaves voices from varied perspectives who lived this story — police, FBI informants, journalists, white supporters, detractors, those who remained loyal to the party and those who left it. Because the participants from all sides were so young in the ’60s and ’70s, they are still around to share firsthand accounts.

The director of the film, Stanley Nelson, is a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellow, a multiple Emmy Award documentary filmmaker, and a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama in August 2014. In other words, he has all the correct liberal/left credentials.

PBS touts The Black Panthers as an exemplary documentary film, comparing it to Rory Kennedy’s Last Days in Vietnam, adding that “nearly 50 years after the founding of the Black Panther Party, we think this powerful film is extremely timely, and therefore will resonate with a wide audience.”  I can attest that Nelson is a skilled filmmaker, having seen two of his films: The Murder of Emmett Till and Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. But despite the claims of PBS publicity, The Black Panthers is anything but an exemplary documentary that accurately depicts the once influential black revolutionary group.

What the film actually does is whitewash and praise what was in reality a group of Stalinist thugs who murdered and killed both police and their own internal dissenters. A devastating review of it is provided in an article by Michael Moynihan that appeared yesterday in The Daily Beast.

In airing this film, PBS is going down the road taken by Oliver Stone and Howard Zinn — that of airing propagandist documentaries meant to glorify leftist figures of our past as both visionaries and fighters for justice. But in the case of the Panthers, the film goes their efforts one better. A leftist might be able to make a case that an anarchist like Emma Goldman and a Socialist like Eugene V. Debs faced persecution for the beliefs they held and the words they spoke. But the Black Panther Party of Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale is a different story.

A lot of this was exposed years ago in the writings of Peter Collier and David Horowitz, as well as in scores of books by people in or close to the Panthers who told the truth in tomes that were hardly noticed. But coming now, as our country is consumed by new claims that the U.S. is still a racist country that has hardly progressed since the days of segregation, the airing of the Nelson film is sure to become a major hit, both in theaters and when it is aired in the fall.

The film, Moynihan writes, features a “cast of shriveled militants for [a] one-dimensional Panther festschrift — a film that doesn’t disturb the ghost of Alex Rackley [a Panther tortured and then murdered by his own group] or the many other victims of the party’s revenge killings, punishment beatings, purges, or ‘disappearances.’”

What is truly stunning is the revelation that some of those very Panther thugs are now professors at some of our most cherished institutions of higher learning. A man named Jamal Joseph, who went from the Panthers to the infamous Black Liberation Army, and who served twelve and a half years in prison for being part of the 1982 Brinks armored car robbery, in which three police officers were murdered in Nyack, New York, is now a film professor at Columbia University.

In 1973, Moynihan writes, a Panther named Sam Napier supported Huey Newton at a time when the group split and others pledged their loyalty to Eldridge Cleaver. Apparently this was not to be tolerated. Napier was shot three times in the back and then three times in the head, and the building in which he had been tied up was then burned to the ground. One of the men tried for the killing was none other than Jamal Joseph who, after a second trial, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of attempted manslaughter. The film does not once mention any of this.

And let us not forget a major Panther leader, Ericka Huggins, who was present in the New Haven, CT, house where poor Alex Rackley was tortured to death on May 16, 1969. The Panthers even recorded her voice relating how they poured boiling water all over him. Where, one might ask, is Ericka Huggins today? Like her counterparts, she is now a professor of sociology at Laney College in Oakland and at Berkeley City College, and has lectured at Stanford, UCLA, and Cornell University.

Of course, there is no such thing as an entirely “objective” documentary since filmmakers have their own point of view, but it is egregious when a talented filmmaker like Stanley Nelson forgoes any semblance of objectivity.  Moynihan viewed the film at a sold-out screening composed of old leftists and Panther acolytes. After the film ended, Nelson acknowledged at a post-screening discussion that it was a “pro-Panther” film, and that he was surprised that “no one stood up and said, ‘How could you say these good things about the Panthers,’ which we thought would happen.”

In making that statement, Nelson admits that his film is essentially propaganda.  PBS, which is funded by corporate donors, viewers answering pledge drives, and by our taxpayer money, should be condemned for presenting this film without the opportunity for viewers to gain a more accurate picture of the BPP.

PBS regularly schedules pro-Fidel Castro propaganda movies, many in past years done by the late Saul Landau, the major American propagandist for the Cuba regime. After protests, columns, and the like — including my own efforts — PBS, in 1984, was forced to run a truncated version of an anti-Castro documentary by Nestor Almendros and Orlando Jimenez Leal.  Improper Conduct showed how any dissenters, including those on the Left, were imprisoned and tortured by the regime. They did so, however, only by running another pro-Castro film by Saul Landau after the screening of the Almendros-Leal documentary. The network’s obviously leftist programmers could not find it within themselves to run an anti-Castro film without the pro-Castro side being shown to offset any effect the first film might have had on the viewer.

Now, with the showing of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, the network is again deserving of the title PBS — Propaganda Broadcasting System. Isn’t it time that PBS gave its viewers less romanticism and a more truthful account of  the very worst elements of the 1960s American Left?

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