Twenty-five years after the verdict in the Rodney King trial sparked several days of protests, violence and looting in Los Angeles, filmmakers examine that tumultuous period through rarely seen archival footage.
John D. Barnett
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'Freeway' Ricky Ross,
Powerful History Depicting the Extent of Racism in the United States
BLACK PANTHERS is a salutary piece that should be shown as a reminder to every politician past and present that racism is alive and regrettably flourishing throughout the United States. Perhaps they should bear this fact in mind before making racist and inflammatory statements in their campaign speeches.
With the help of extensive archive footage plus first-hand reminiscences from those involved, Stanley Nelson's documentary tells the story of a movement that grew out of the Civil Rights Movement but favored more active forms of intervention. Protests might be kept largely peaceful - at least in the early years - but members of the movement were quite prepared to carry weapons, especially in California, where a loophole in the law allowed them to do so. The overwhelmingly white police force took strong exception to this, but there was little they could do within the confines of the law ... except to beat up miscreants in the name of preserving the peace.
Ideologically speaking, the Black Panthers had a lot in common with the liberation movements that sprung up all over Africa during the Sixties. Many nations freed themselves at length from the shackles of colonial rule: the Black Panthers wanted to do the same for African Americans within the USA. They garnered considerable support from within the African continent, and managed to attract a huge following for their various demonstrations. The media found some of them highly attractive with their Afro hairstyles and alternative modes of dress through which they expressed their unique identities.
In a chilling reminder of the anti-Communist movement two decades previously, the government - especially under Richard Nixon - tried to limit the Black Panthers' activities through the work of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. Although not exactly described as such, his determine to root out so-called "subversives" reeked of an anticommunist witch-hunt, taking place in a country that publicly speaking liked to proclaim its commitment to democratic values.
Perhaps the document was a tad one-sided, as it tended to concentrate on the Panthers' commitment to eradicate racism while not exploring some of its more violent tactics. But then perhaps they could be justified; the days of the African American passively turning the other cheek or peacefully resisting in a manner prescribed by Martin Luther King were long gone.
My first memory of the Black Panther movement and its significance came at the 1968 Olympics, when the African American Tommie Smith raised his hand in the movement's salute just after he had received a gold medal. Although the television companies tried to make light of the incident, it was a clear indication of how the movement had become part of the mainstream rather than remaining on the margins.
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