Insanely relevant at the time of its inception and still very much so now, The Black Panther movement is known around the world for its passion and its determination to bring about change. With this in mind, it seems crazy that tonight’s THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION is actually the first feature-length documentary to explore the Black Panther Party, and what a documentary it is.
Hugely informative as well as a fantastic watch, it explores the movement’s significance to American culture, its cultural and political awakening for black people everywhere, and the painful lessons wrought when a movement implodes. The work of Emmy award-winning documentarian Stanley Nelson, the film weaves an incredible tale as told by those from within the Panthers, and mixes a priceless treasure trove of rare archival footage with comment from a diverse group of people who were there at the movement’s height. This includes a wide range of viewpoints, giving us valuable insights into the time through stories told by everyone from police and FBI informants to journalists, white supporters and detractors, as well as Black Panthers who remained loyal to the party and those who left it.
It tells the story of a pivotal, history making movement that gave rise to a new revolutionary culture in America at a time when the country was in a tremendous state of flux. Their causes – and their famous slogans like "Power to the People"– are now relevant again in an era that has seen the emergence of the "Black Lives Matter" movement and tense relations between African American communities and the police in the US in constant escalation.
Talking about the Black Panther movement from a New Zealand perspective necessitates a shout out to our own agents of social change who emerged around the same time, the Polynesian Panthers. Spurred on by the work of the Black Panthers in the US, the Polynesian Panther Movement began in the early seventies in New Zealand in response to the oppression and discrimination Pacific Islanders faced at the time.
Key to their formation and mobilisation were the now-infamous Dawn Raids. The previous decade, New Zealand had opened its arms to migrants from the Pacific Islands to fill labour shortages. When the economy tightened, immigration authorities rapidly changed their relaxed attitude and started deporting people who had overstayed their visas. While British immigrants also overstayed, it was Pacific Islanders who police targeted most, and the parents of Pacific Islanders I know are still clearly traumatised by what they saw happening to their neighbours and families. As well as raids, in the streets of Central Auckland police would freely question any brown-skinned people – Maori and Pacific Islanders alike – for proof that they were in New Zealand legally. Outrageous, especially given how recently it happened.
Coming out of suburbs like Grey Lynn and Ponsonby, the Polynesian Panther movement also aimed to balance stereotypes of Pacific Islanders created by the media, and they were inspired by civil rights movements in South Africa as well as the United States.
Not just protesters, they established homework centres so students could study after school, providing a service which is not uncommon today, but was new in the 1970s. The group organised prison visits to reach out to people inside who had no-one else, and to transport family members who otherwise would not be able to go. They demonstrated against poor housing and injustice.
Now aged in their 50s, key founding members of Panthers recently released a book POLYNESIAN PANTHERS detailing stories of the protests, demonstrations and achievements, and it is well worth a read I reckon. It covers moments from the dawn raids of the seventies through to the violence of the Springbok tour protests in the eighties, and comes from some pretty amazing voices.
So settle in and watch tonight’s THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION, before taking in a little essential reading about a revolutionary movement much closer to home.
Premieres Thursday 28th July at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel.