Directed by Mario van Peebles (1995)
Panther is a highly engrossing docudrama about the formation of the Black Panther Party in Oakland California in 1966. It differs from most other documentaries on the Panthers in its emphasis on efforts by the Oakland police and the FBI to infiltrate and smash the group almost from their inception.
Panther traces the initial decision to form the Panthers to brutal beatings neighborhood residents received from the police when they held a candlelight protest demanding a stoplight at a dangerous intersection.
Under the leadership of Huey Newton, they formed Panther Patrols to intercede and stop the Oakland police from randomly beating and shooting black men on the street. It wasn’t necessary to use the rifles they carried – which were legal until Governor Ronald Reagan change the law in 1968. It was enough to show white racist cops that their knew their rights under the Constitution and California law and were prepared to shoot if necessary. The film’s re-enactments of Newton’s verbal confrontations with redneck Oakland police are priceless.
Under Newton, the Oakland Panthers exercised very strict discipline. Alcohol, drugs, womanizing and illegal weapons were strictly forbidden at meetings and protests. As men, women and children flocked to join the Panthers, they organized classes in literacy, Black history, revolutionary theory and firearms training – in addition to their famous children’s breakfasts and other food distribution programs.
The film’s dramatic tension revolves principally around the FBI’s escalating efforts to crush the organization as dozens of chapters sprang up and membership swelled into the thousands.
The film ends in 1970 following Huey Newton’s acquittal on trumped up charges of shooting Oakland cop John Frey. Panther portrays this as occurring simultaneously with an FBI decision to collaborate with the Mob to flood America’s inner cities with massive amounts of heroin.