Directed, written and produced by Stanley Nelson, this riveting documentary takes the viewer inside the closed doors of the Panthers as well as the FBI and local law enforcement agencies. This is important because the message of the film is as much about the misuse of police power as it is about the rise and fall of one of the strongest voices for black civil rights in America.
Originating as a grass roots community based self-protection organization that provided an extensive breakfast program for inner city school kids, the Panthers self-destructed due to leader ship failures and local and national law enforcement harassment. The film shows some remarkable early efforts of the group to unite with other civil rights oriented groups. Apparently these potential alliances fell by the wayside as the Panthers increased the stridency of their vocal attacks and matched them with gun battles.
The odds were stacked against them from the start. History records that very few guerrilla armies succeed against organized forces. The only ones that do are those that receive outside help through external alliances and are able to make the transition from physical force to legal power. In the end, Huey Newton was the captain when the ship went down. Several of his most intimate friends describe his descent into drugs and uncontrollable violence.
Even so, the most important part of the film is the candid and unvarnished description of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and his Counterintelligence Program. As the film tells the story, the Director was able to conduct what was almost a personal vendetta against the organization with virtually no oversite of any kind. Mothers, fathers, employers and even distant relatives were harassed, embarrassed and humiliated by the FBI to punish Panther members and supporters.
Most damning of all, the film purports that the FBI, through its informants, actually supplied the Panthers with guns so as to galvanize a murderous response from local police. In this way, the local police took the heat for the killings while the FBI stayed well in the background. Impossible to believe? Remember that it was at this same time when President Nixon organized the break-in and burglary of the Watergate Democratic National Committee headquarters. The federal government was, perhaps, even darker than it is today.
It will probably forever remain a mystery how the Panthers would have turned out without illegal FBI wiretaps and falsehoods. If the group had been allowed to raise money honestly and spend it on legitimate programs to feed, house and educate inner city minorities, the world would certainly be a better place today. On the other hand, perhaps absolute power corrupts absolutely and the Panthers would have become victims of their own success anyway.
It is a tragedy that innocent and gifted community organizers like Fred Hampton had to die in what turned out to be outright cold-blooded murders. Even after the one million dollar plus wrongful death civil settlement granted to Hampton’s family against the city of Chicago, no charges were even proven against the officers who machine gunned him in his bed and finished the job with two point blank shots to the head. If you lived during that time, you have heard this all before. But this film offers a uniquely clear perspective on a dark time in American history.
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