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“Vanguard of the Revolution” is Liberal History, Strips and Omits Socialism from History of the Black Panther Party

by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

Stanley Nelson's documentary on the BPP is “history” by and for lazy American liberals. He turns the BPP into a pop culture icon a T-shirt. Nelson mentions guns hundreds of times, big naturals and swagger a few dozen times but not the word “socialism” once in 2 hours. The BPP described its Breakfast For Children and Free Medical Clinics every day as “socialism” in person and in our newspaper, to each other and to the neighborhoods we served.


Vanguard of the Revolution” is Liberal History, Strips and Omits Socialism from History of the Black Panther Party


by BAR managing editor Bruce A.Dixon

"Stanley Nelson is what Americans call a “liberal” and that's what Vanguard of the Revolution is.... a liberal's take on the BPP...."


I used to have a Che Guevara T-shirt. It was a pretty good shirt, but it told me nothing about the man or his life's work. It had Che's face on it, but by itself the face is just a pop culture icon, shorthand or short-brain for everything you want to know, or everything think you already know about it. That's what Stanley Nelson's film, Black Panthers, Vanguard of the Revolution does to the Black Panther Party. He made the movement of my youth an icon. A T-shirt.

On the plus side, it's a pretty good T-shirt. Vanguard of the Revolution contains some great interview footage from Erika Huggins, Elaine Brown, the freedom fighting Freeman brothers and Wayne Pharr, my old comrade Michael McCarty and several others. On the minus side, Nelson omits and obscures the domestic and global political context the BPP came out of and thrived in. According to Vanguard of the Revolution, the BPP arose out of black northern frustration after the passage of civil rights legislation. It caught on due to the irresistible appeal of its naturals, big guns, the murder mouthing rhetoric of Eldridge Cleaver, downright sexiness, and black is beautiful, all of which earned the BPP pop culture stardom. And pop culture stardom needs no further explanation. Cue the music, fists in the air, and power to the people...

In Nelson's universe, the BPP splintered due to counterintelligence operations launched against it by the government, it withered because of brutal nationwide repression and was swamped with waves of police informants. It died when rank and file members who did all the work became exhausted, burnt out, and in some cases disillusioned by the personal antics of BPP co-founder Huey Newton, which are examined at some length.

Like my old Che T-shirt, Nelson's BPP has no historical context. The film makerdoesn't tell us,or maybe doesn't know himself what changed about 1971 to cause the shrinkage of the BPP that led to its concentration in Oakland by 1973 for the mayoral campaign of Bobby Seale. He doesn't tell us why national liberation movements from southern Africa to Vietnam to Palestine and the governments of nonaligned Algeria and socialist Cuba reached out to and cooperated with the BPP. Were they in love with our guns and nappy hairstyles too? The best Nelson offers isthat like the Cubans and Algerians and African revolutionaries, the BPP was “anti-American.”

Stanley Nelson is what Americans call a “liberal” and that's what Vanguard of the Revolution is.... a liberal's take on the BPP. They were black and beautiful, they had some interesting things to say, and mostly didn't deserve what they got. They were pop superstars, but hey, stardom comes and goes. American liberals like to pretend that the US global empire doesn't exist, or is benign, and that its operations don't much affect what goes on at home. And liberals know to steer clear of any favorable mentions of socialism, or communism, or criticisms of capitalism.

Near the beginning of the film Nelson mentions the admonition to black men that their fight is at home, not overseas. Here's some context. When I was 18 in 1968, I too heard people repeating “Black man your fight is at home, not in Vietnam.” I heard it from guys I knew a couple years older fresh back from the US draftee army in Vietnam. They told us the VietCong --- Vietnamese guerillas fighting the US invaders in their country would shout to them in English at night across the razor wire “Black man why are you here? Your fight is at home!” That's the context, and we talked about it in the BPP political education classes and the BPP newspaper. I learned soon after that the elder brothers of these VietCong, the Vietminh had asked the same question the same way in French to African colonial troops brought in to reassert French control over that country in the 1940s and 50s.

Unlike Stanley Nelson, those of us tuned into the movement of that day were not just thinking inside the US.

The wars against colonialism and apartheid in Africa were on our mind, and the US war in Vietnam, where the draftee army at the time made combat units disproportionately black and brown made the black stake in US global empire something we could not and did not ignore. The BPP and many radical blacks outside the BPP saw ourselves as part of a trans-national, a global movement against racist colonialism and capitalism, and for socialism. We said so every chance we got, and there is plenty of archival footage to back it up much of it just before and after the clips used in the film. It was Nelson's choice not to use any of that, and not to query any of his interviewees about it, unless that footage is still on the cutting room floor.

The BPP tried to draw lessons from revolutions in China and the USSR, from the Cuban experience at combating racism, from the writings and speeches of African revolutionaries. We reached out to that global movement as well as we were able, given our youth and inexperience, and it reached back to us. The Cubans, Algerians, the revolutionary movements around the world didn't open their doors to the Black Panther Party because they liked our hairstyles or music or big talk or big guns. They didn't do it, as someone in Nelson's film said with a straight face, because we were “anti-Americans”. They did it because they recognized the BPP as part of that global movement.

"Nelson doesn't explain why the BPP had wide support among whites, especially young whites up till 1971. The reason wasn't pop culture stardom, big naturals, guns and big talk. It was the draft and the US war in Vietnam...."

When we talked about the BPP's Breakfast for Children program we called it socialism. That was how we explained it and the party's food giveaways and free medical clinics to the people in the neighborhoods and that was how we understood it. This too was all over the BPP newspaper, but Nelson missed or omitted that too. In our poitical education classes, many of which I led in Chicago, we studied Marx and Engels and Lenin.  We read Amilcar Cabral and Paulo Freire.  We discussed Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, the daily newspapers and our own Black Panther newspaper. Our paper had articles from North Korea, from South Africa, from China and Vietnam.  None of that shows up in Nelson's film.

The BPP wasn't destroyed by direct police repression either. In Chicago where I was, we never enjoyed more public support than in the weeks after Fred Hampton was murdered in Chicago, and the following week when the LAPD beseiged our Southern California office in Los Angeles.

Nelson doesn't explain why the BPP had wide support among whites, especially young whites up till 1971. The reason wasn't pop culture stardom, big naturals, guns and big talk. It was the draft and the US war in Vietnam. The draft de-legitimized the government among young whites to the extent that many were willing to support a black revolutionary movement which also denounced the war, the draft and militarism along with much else at home. When the draft ended in 1971 and the masses of US troops came home, white support for the BPP evaporated like snow in the springtime, and along with burnout and such led to the decision to concentrate the organization's remaining resources in Oakland for Bobby Seale's mayoral run.

Stanley Nelson is no doubt a fine film maker, and for all I know a good guy. What he ain't is a historian of 20thcentury radical movements. He renders the BPP through his own liberal lens and blind spots.  His film strips the BPP from its historical and political context to get the icon that liberals imagine explains everything and leaves out the unpalatable socialist politics. Vanguard of the Revolution is a T-shirt. A really good one, but a T-shirt. I don't blame the man, he's not alone. Henry Louis Gates' TV special did exactly the same thing.  So did Jakobi Williams and so have many other books and treatments of the BPP.  Removing socialism from histories and discussions of the BPP has become pretty much the standard liberal thing to do.  It would have been surprising if Nelson had done anything else.

Mistaking Vanguard of the Revolution for a real history of the BPP puts the film maker's liberal blinders on young black activists looking for clues. It directs them away from questioning capitalism, from investigating socialism, from appreciating the influence from and upon the global movement for peace, justice and socialism upon our movement here inside the US. With this stuff as the historical standard it's no wonder a generation of activists are seeking individual validation and stardom, Facebook likes and Twitter followers instead of questioning real authority and educating themselves and their communities to struggle for power.

If we want to understand the meaning of black radical movements like the BPP we'll need to hear from some black radical historians. So far nothing comes close to the grasp of the BPP, its rise, fall, its intent, impact, context and historical significance exhibited in Waldo Martin and Joshua Bloom's Black Against Empire. It's a high standard to meet, but it shouldn't be impossible.

I've already got a BPP T-shirt I can wear. I don't need another one that lasts an hour and 55 minutes.

Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and a member of the state committee of the GA Green Party. Reach him via email at

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"I'm just trying to make a way out of no way, for my people" -Modejeska Monteith Simpkins









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Many Black liberals don't know jack shit about radical African American politics or always liberalizing it because they can't face the outright Blackness of it. They think of themselves as Americans and anything that is other than American must be made American.


If a Black liberal is involved with anything regarding non I Have a Dream MLK politics, non Democratic Plantation Party politics...they will fuck it up.


And the sad thing is, these type of documentaries are massed produced and put on PBS and crap and Americans will watch, think they learned something and this will become the standard narrative.


The Black Panther Party was some domestic political movement that squashed by the FBI and White people loved them...


No it's more like the Black Panther Party was an international political movement that merged with the decolonization movement of the Third World and was the vanguard for revolution in America.


The Black Panther Party was the manifestation of Malcolm X's dream.

Elaine Brown, BPP member, craps on the documentary here.

In his film The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, black documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson slices and dices the history of the Black Panther Party into a two-dimensional palliative for white people and Negroes who are comfortable in America’s oppressive status quo.  His film, a collage of personalized vignettes by erstwhile and self-professed Party members, culminating in the complete excoriation of the Party’s guiding genius, Huey P. Newton, is at once shocking and disappointing. It is also condemnable.

As an aside, to answer any charge that my condemnation of this film arises from the fact that Nelson tossed most of his interview with me onto the cutting room floor, I note that my autobiography, A Taste of Power, my own Black Panther story, has never gone out of print and was just picked up as an e-book. It is under option with HBO for its miniseries The Black Panthers.

That said, as a former leader of the Party, I assert authority to state that Stanley Nelson ultimately debases the Party, which history will substantiate was, to this very day, the greatest effort for freedom ever made by Africans lost in America. Nelson does this by excising from his film the Party’s ideological foundation and political strategies, despite the wealth of published materials articulating the Party’s goals and ideals, reducing our activities to sensationalist engagements, as snatched from establishment media headlines.

He lingers on minutiae in showing stock footage from our famous Free Breakfast for Children program and Free Health Clinic program, the most publicized among the over 30 Survival Programs the Party fostered. In that, he obscures the magnitude of this effort, for which the FBI admittedly and specifically condemned the Party as the “greatest threat to the internal security of the United States.” And Nelson does this despite the fact that there are hours of footage online in which Huey P. Newton fully sets forth the purpose of our Survival Programs, operating under the slogan “Survival Pending Revolution,” which was to serve the People’s immediate needs toward galvanizing mass participation in the Revolution. The Party held that the masses of People not the Party were the makers of the Revolution of which, in our time and place, we were indeed the vanguard.

Minimizing the role of Huey Newton, founder of the Party, along with Bobby Seale, Nelson elevates the role in the Party of Eldridge Cleaver—who individually did more to try to destroy the Party than the U.S. government. This elevation of Cleaver is a clue to the point of Nelson’s “documentary”—to produce a piece of provocative propaganda worthy of the FBI itself. Though Cleaver was but a fleeting darling of the establishment press who was in the Party for no more than a year or so before being expelled, footage of Cleaver and “Cleaverites” overwhelms almost half of Nelson’s two-hour film.

While referencing the COINTELPRO operations of the FBI, which has been well-documented to have had the goal of discrediting, disrupting or destroying the Black Panther Party, Nelson reduces the massive, brutal effort by the U.S. government to destroy the Party to the story of traitor William O’Neal, who infiltrated the Illinois Chapter of the Party as an agent of the FBI.  And, while showing emotional interviews with survivors of the ferocious, 1969 raid on the Party’s Los Angeles office by the Los Angeles Police Department’s newly-formed SWAT Team, Nelson erases the fact that this assault, like the murder of Fred Hampton in Chicago, was in fact orchestrated by the government of the United States—and this, despite that no other organization in the history of the United States has been so targeted by the government for elimination. Had he chosen to do the right thing, Nelson would have had to open up his film to the broad question of why the Party was so targeted by the United States government.

Though he focuses most of his film on the personal remembrances of Party members and purported Party members, Nelson deletes the memory and martyrdom of Party heroes like George Jackson, Bunchy Carter, and John Huggins.

In the last 20 minutes of his film, Nelson sets forth a superficial montage of the Bobby Seale/Elaine Brown electoral campaign. Accompanied by jaunty music, this campaign is suggestively presented as a deviation from any notion of revolution, providing a stark counterpoint to Nelson’s ultimate statement: a disparaging portrait of Huey P. Newton.


Like new-right ideologue David Horowitz, Nelson paints Huey as a thug, a “maniac,” according to an interview he highlights with one former Panther—a man harboring a lifelong, apolitical grudge against Huey, whom he never knew or even met. Nelson’s Huey is then reduced to a thug and drug addict killed by his own “demonic” behavior. Although Huey was killed 10 years after the Party’s demise, Nelson ties Huey’s tragic murder to the death of the Party. This opens the way to his wholesale condemnation of the Party as a fascinating cult-like group that died out on account of the leadership of a drug-addicted maniac. In this, he exonerates the government’s vicious COINTELPRO activities, and discredits and destroys the very history and memory of the Party.

If Nelson knew the black community, he would know that Huey remains a hero to black people, especially those still locked in the impoverished corners of America. In West Oakland, where the Party started, the locale of Huey’s murder is deemed sacred ground.

In his haste to disparage the Party by disingenuously casting his film as a documentary about the Party, Nelson overlooked the fact that Huey promoted the ideal that the Party never attempt to institutionalize itself, lest it become more entrenched in self-preservation than in promoting the goal of global revolution. Just as the Party’s existence was not grounded in the existence of any individual, its demise was inevitable and necessary in order to open the door for new generations to adapt to new conditions toward the ultimate, inevitable elimination of the American Empire and introduction of a new world society in which resources are equitably distributed among the people, according to need and ability.

I have asked Stanley Nelson to remove the snippets of his interview with me from his film. He has refused. My consolation lies in knowing that this film will not be relevant in the history of the Black Panther Party, which, fixed in the history of the United States, will be studied for generation upon generation to come, and in knowing that history will not remember Stanley Nelson at all.

Thanks for post this Goodman.  Saved me a lot of time trying research the quality of the movie, let alone wasting my time watching.  

Evidently, this movie is more of a "Propaganda Film" [designed] to downplay the magnitude of the Black Panthers and their influence on society, not only right here in America, but around the word, and minimize the TYRANNY of the United States Government on its own citizens in the vicious, murderous and UNCONSTITUTIONAL way in which it set out to destroy the Black Panters and/or CONSTITUTIONALLY PROTECTED Decent of American citizens.  

[Does the United States Government (FBI, CIA, KKK) have its own production company(ies) and movie "producers"?]

sunnubian posted:


[Does the United States Government (FBI, CIA, KKK) have its own production company(ies) and movie "producers"?]

Not necessarily...


But the USA Gov't has been involved in promoting Jazz across the world and American paintings.

The CIA also has it's own Entertainment and Media division that assists Hollywood in creating an "accurate portrayal" of the CIA. 

GoodMan posted:
sunnubian posted:


[Does the United States Government (FBI, CIA, KKK) have its own production company(ies) and movie "producers"?]

Not necessarily...


But the USA Gov't has been involved in promoting Jazz across the world and American paintings.

The CIA also has it's own Entertainment and Media division that assists Hollywood in creating an "accurate portrayal" of the CIA. 

I was being sarcastic, as in half the sh!t that comes out of Hollywood, etc., are no more than Propaganda Films designed to 'condition' people's attitudes and beliefs in America anyway.

But what your answer . . . I guess you learn something new every day.  

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