Television images of the 1965 Watts riots jolt across the screen toward the beginning of Stanley Nelson’s magnificent documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, as a baritone newscaster declaims the obvious: “Relations between police and Negroes throughout the country are getting worse.” Well, yes, assuming that “relations” meant the rise and fall of billy clubs in white hands onto black skulls, the forward swing of rifle butts from white shoulders into black chests. The archival montage goes on for only a few seconds—this time, at least—but it’s so awful that it feels like a year. Or 50, if you’ve been following the reports from Ferguson, Baltimore, Staten Island.
So you walk into a different theater to catch F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton—a sometimes buoyant, sometimes soggy fictional account of the fortunes of the gangsta-rap group NWA—and what do you see? White cops shoving young black men over the hoods of cars, jerking arms behind black torsos, rubbing black faces onto cement. Are relations getting worse, or staying at the same damned level? Given the temporal continuity of the two films—Nelson’s ends for all practical purposes in the mid-1970s, while Gray’s effectively takes up the story 10 years later—the least you can say is that history repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, the second as show business.
Which is not to deny the canny fashion sense that the Panthers bring to American political life in Nelson’s film, or the outrage that comes booming from NWA in Straight Outta Compton. Gray revels in the righteous indignation of Ice Cube, NWA’s best-known lyricist (and one of the movie’s producers), especially when the character rebuffs the ignorance of white scolds. NWA is neither exploiting gang violence nor glorifying it, Ice Cube insists again and again (Straight Outta Compton is nothing if not repetitive); the group is reflecting the reality outside its front door. As for the Panthers’ style, “That look…became a hit,” Kathleen Cleaver proudly recalls in Nelson’s documentary, smiling at the memory of how young black people across America, whether in or out of the party, suddenly had to have a natural, a beret, and a black leather jacket.
Of course, it’s useful—maybe even necessary—in movement politics to have both depth of purpose and theatrical appeal. But to portray the Panthers, Nelson has to encompass all this and much more: the quasi-delusional recklessness and disciplined community work, the ego-driven squabbling at the top and hopeful courage in the rank and file. It’s a near-impossible task—and yet he succeeds in creating a coherent picture of the messiest, most contentious radical group of a chaotic era, and arguably its most consequential. “We know the party we were in,” cautions onetime Panther leader Ericka Huggins at the start of the film, suggesting that Nelson is facing the proverbial problem of getting six blind men to describe an elephant. By the end of the film, he has very coolly put that elephant back into the room.
Call it a trick of montage. Nelson and editor Aljernon Tunsil have a magician’s touch for giving life to period music and archival images, as well as a scholar’s resourcefulness in digging them up. When the voice-over explains the Panthers’ earliest exploits—trailing police patrols around Oakland with weapons in hand (perfectly legal at the time, under California’s open-carry statute) to discourage the use of excessive force—you see part of the scene in footage shot from inside a Panther cruiser. When interview subjects recount the incident that first brought the Panthers to national attention—striding with their rifles onto the floor of the State Assembly in Sacramento (sheer inadvertence: They were looking for the gallery)—you watch the episode unfold through perhaps half a dozen visual sources, both homemade and commercial, which take you from the moment of arrival in the parking lot to the politicians’ denunciations.