One of the most unfortunate aspects of the African-American experience is that as a largely unanchored population constantly seeking any tidbits of information regarding our individual and collective pasts, there is a tendency to believe what we see on television or the internet, particularly YouTube videos, when it comes to our past. It often appears that the vast majority of our people adhere to the silly belief of “they couldn’t put it on the internet/television if it weren’t true.”
If one could say that YouTube lends an aura of truth to historical/political videos, one can only imagine the instant credibility that a channel such as PBS envelopes projects such as Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution within.
In the days leading up to this “documentary” appearing on PBS, I felt that it was “the best of times and the worst of times” for those who have had any dealings with the Panthers (leaders, rank-and-file members, researchers, scholars). It appeared to be “the best of times” because our people seemed to be interested in something of substance and “the worst of times” because Nelson’s attempt at capturing The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense falls way short of even mild expectations.
Having already seen Nelson’s desperate attempt to capture the Panthers, I cringed at many of the things that first-time viewers would see; most notably, his uneven, darn near libelous, portrait of Huey P. Newton.
Particularly unsettling for me, as a Panther historian whose book, Creating Revolution As They Advance: A Narrative History of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense is currently at press and due to debut in days, was that this filmmaker choose to emphasize much of the negativity surrounding Huey P. Newton’s late-life and totally ignore the reality that Huey P. Newton was a man who was well before his time on many issues.
For example, considering the current insurgency of the LGBTQ movement, Nelson could have easily acknowledged Newton’s progressive position on this matter by highlighting the following statement that Newton made nearly fifty-years ago to a machismo cadre that bathed in male-privilege and what they considered God-given patriarchal authority. Newton relates the following to his cadre,
We have not said much about homosexuals at all, but we must relate to the homosexual movement because it is a real thing. And I know through reading, and through my life experience and observations that homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in the society. They might be the most oppressed in the society.
We should be careful about using these terms that might turn our friends off. The terms “faggot” and “punk” should be deleted from our vocabulary, and especially we should not attach names normally designed for homosexuals to men who are enemies of the people, such as Nixon or Mitchell. Homosexuals are not enemies of the people. We should try to form a working coalition with the gay liberation and women’s liberation groups.
Alycee Lane argues that “the historical significance of Newton’s letter should not be underestimated.”
It was the first time any non-gay black organization whether the mainstream, like the NAACP, or radical like Ron Karenga’s Us — recognized the oppression of homophobia; connected that oppression to the plight of black people; and attempted — based on that connection — to build coalitions openly with lesbians and gay men.
Instead of an illuminating treatment of Huey P. Newton, a Revolutionary Nationalist leader who fought against every form of prejudice, discrimination, and racism, Newton, and his genius, is dismissed away in favor of a damning depiction of him as a psychologically unstable ‘crackhead’ who single-handedly destroyed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.
Stanley Nelson’s attempt to undress Newton not only cheapened The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, but also interjected ample amounts of falsehood, misrepresentation, and foolishness into a discussion that could have done so much more for Black America.
Most troubling of all is the reality that so many people, after seeing this “documentary” will erroneously believe that they now know about the history, contributions, and legacy of Huey P. Newton and The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Unfortunately for those who have any investment in the legacy of Huey P. Newton and The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, a naïve public, of all races/ethnicities will immediately develop an unshakeable belief in this half-truth and uneven “documentary” believe its contents wholesale. After all, “If it isn’t true, they wouldn’t put it on TV or the internet.”
Or would they?
Dr. James Thomas Jones III
© Manhood, Race and Culture, 2016