Others will be better qualified to talk about the substance of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Stanley Nelson’s documentary, which is currently showing in London. I found it extremely moving. There’s an initial sense of exhilaration at the spectacle of the human spirit responding to adversity with pride, resilience and creativity, only for that spirit to be crushed by the relentless efficiency of J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI.
Nelson modulates the tone of the film to match its narrative arc with great sensitivity, and that is where the soundtrack plays its part. At the start of the story we see the Chi-Lites singing “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People” in ruffled costumes on Soul Train and hear Billy Paul’s “Am I Black Enough For You”, Philadelphia International’s most confrontational moment. These are reminders of how the ideas represented by the Panthers were able to gatecrash mainstream culture. Later the musical backdrop is supplied by the stripped-down street-funk of the early ’70s (“Express Yourself” by Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band being a good example). At the close, with the Panthers’ unity and sense of purpose destroyed by police bullets (notably in the assassination of Fred Hampton, the eloquent, charismatic 21-year-old who Hoover feared would become the movement’s “messiah”) and internal rivalries (the post-prison Huey P. Newton versus the exiled Eldridge Cleaver), the profound darkening of the mood is expressed through the voice of Gil Scott-Heron, singing “Winter in America”.
I’ve been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, a recent best-seller which takes the form of a letter to his 15-year-old son, relating Coates’s own experiences as a black boy growing up in America. His grandfather was a research librarian at Howard University in Washington DC, with a profound love of books: “…all over the house, books about black people, by black people, for black people spilling off shelves and out of the living room…” His parents were radicals: “We would not stand for their anthems. We would not kneel before their God.” His father had been a captain in the Black Panther Party.
The book is a brilliant analysis of the journey taken by several generations of African Americans, always facing the same enemy. Coates was born in 1975: “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth,” he writes, “was to be naked before all the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease.” He was 11 years old when another boy pulled a gun on him. His son’s reality is the Black Lives Matter movement.
Nelson’s film contains another music-related moment that made me catch my breath. We see photographs of the room in a Panther house on Chicago’s West Side where Fred Hampton was gunned down by police in December 1969, its layout revealed to them by an FBI informant. Amid the blood-spattered debris lying on the bedroom floor, it’s possible to glimpse the sleeve of Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch. On its appearance in 1964, Dolphy’s album represented a high point in the African American research project that jazz had become. It’s still being analysed and copied today. And to me it’s an affirmation of some sort that Out to Lunch was part of the soundtrack of that Panther household, and — or so we may infer — of Fred Hampton’s short life.