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.
To such materials, Nelson adds a wealth of present-day interviews with former Panthers (some of them practiced in their recollections, others touchingly candid), along with newspaper and magazine clippings, excerpts from government documents, writings by anonymous young party members, and testimonies from historians, movement lawyers, journalists, police, even a retired FBI agent. I can’t call the research comprehensive; party cofounder Bobby Seale seems to have been unavailable for interview, and there is deafening silence about the known murders committed by Panthers, with or without direct orders. Still, Nelson has compiled more than enough information to present an account that is admiring when it comes to the idealism and self-sacrifice of many party members, and notably unflinching when it comes to the details.
In the words of various witnesses, the party’s growth was too rapid and undirected. (“Nobody asked these people, ‘Why are you here? What do you want to accomplish?’”) The most prominent spokesperson, Eldridge Cleaver, was uncontrollable (or flat-out “crazy,” in the laughing opinion of former Young Lord Felipe Luciano), and a cult of personality was fostered around jailed cofounder Huey P. Newton (“a fucking maniac,” in the words of another party veteran). The rank and file, concludes one of the historians, did not have the leaders they deserved.
To the seething despair that settled into the Panthers’ hearts after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., add the desperation instilled by police raids, relentless spying, spurious prosecutions, manipulated suspicions and outright murder, all orchestrated from Washington, DC, by J. Edgar Hoover. No doubt the darkest episode in Nelson’s film, and perhaps its core, is the tale of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Panthers, who died as the direct result of Hoover’s COINTELPRO operations. The rare leader who was worthy of his followers, the 21-year-old Hampton—inspired in his oratory and gifted at building coalitions—was betrayed by his bodyguard (an FBI informer) and executed in bed in 1969 by officers of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.
Maybe this is as good a moment as any to jump ahead to NWA and its chart-busting hit, “Fuck tha Police.”
NWA didn’t sell music so much as authenticity—its audience was buying the thrill of hearing brutal truths about black America shouted in the language of the street, by people who knew—and authenticity is a promise as well of Straight Outta Compton, made manifest in everything from its scenes of police mayhem (including multiple showings of the Rodney King video) to the casting of O’Shea Jackson Jr. in the role of his father, Ice Cube. You’re meant to feel that the bass on NWA’s tracks sounds like a police battering ram breaking down the door of a drug house (one of the first things to happen in the movie), or to hear Dr. Dre’s percussive turntable-scratching as another kind of rat-a-tat.
Yet despite its striving for the reality effect, Straight Outta Compton begins much like a summer blockbuster from the Marvel universe, introducing its quickly characterized superheroes one after another: pugnacious, fast-talking drug-runner Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), dutiful son and sonic dreamer Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and smoldering, watchful scribbler Ice Cube. Once these legendary figures team up and unite their uncanny powers, it’s only a matter of time before something becomes airborne: the camera, in this case, which at the literal and figurative high point of Straight Outta Compton dives over the heads of the crowd at a Detroit arena, swoops around the stage where NWA is performing “Fuck tha Police,” and soars back out again.
This is F. Gary Gray’s directorial ecstasy, which comes rather too early in the proceedings for the movie’s good. Liberated by NWA’s full-throated denunciation of police racism, and especially by the group’s defiance of police orders never to perform that number, Gray leaves the Earth behind and brings you along with him. After that, you’ve got about a two-hour slog left, through contract disputes, management problems, professional rivalries, and a lot of standard-issue showbiz parties.
But the memory of the flight over the Detroit arena remains; and if you see The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, it might connect with another moment of defiance and liberation. In December 1966, just four days after the execution of Fred Hampton, Los Angeles police deployed their recently organized SWAT team in its first major raid, targeting a Panther headquarters. This time the Panthers were awake and prepared. Objectively, the best that can be said for their resistance is that the ensuing four-hour standoff ended with all of them alive, though in police custody. No newly flourishing headquarters sprang up in the ruins that the SWAT team left behind. Nationally, in fact, the Panthers were heading toward schism, disarray, and effective demise, on what turned out to be a three-year schedule. But for at least one of the party members in that siege, Wayne Pharr, the shoot-out was a peak moment never before experienced. “I felt free,” he says.
Watching these films today, in the wake of the killings in Ferguson, Baltimore, Staten Island, I’m struck by the distances that we have and have not traveled, and by the urgency and inadequacy of expressing outrage. I’m willing to accept the authenticity of Straight Outta Compton, even in Marvel-universe form, and readily acknowledge that NWA’s music has felt liberating for millions of people; but I also think it’s significant that the movie devolves so thoroughly from superhero exploits to a story about business. As the closing montage makes clear with its testimonials to NWA, the movie’s subject ultimately isn’t freedom, or even free expression, but success.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is a deeper and better-made film, and consequently more challenging. While acknowledging that the Panthers tapped a vein of anger with very mixed results, sometimes failing to channel either the rage or themselves, Nelson shows you what a mass-based radical politics can feel like, and reminds you that you haven’t seen its like for a while. Judging from the evidence, I’d say our era is post-NWA more than post-Panther, and that Black Lives Matter is still not so much a movement as a social-media campaign.
Straight Outta Compton has been playing in theaters “everywhere,” which is also the general location where you can hear NWA’s music. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution goes into theatrical release in September, beginning with a run at Film Forum in New York.
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As all the world has come to know, except in areas controlled by the Taliban and ISIL, Amy Schumer has a buxom figure and a demolition-derby contestant’s attitude toward sexual propriety. Combined with the juvenile aspects of her face—the short, stubby nose, the kewpie-doll cheeks—these attributes can make it hard for you to decide whether her development is arrested or precocious. She has it both ways in Trainwreck, the Judd Apatow–directed vehicle she wrote for herself, playing a woman who learned early about men’s loose ways and has been following them enthusiastically ever since.
I am all for Trainwreck, if only because it’s one of a handful of films that popped up this summer in which a woman played the lead and talked about some of what she wants. But it wasn’t quite as funny as I’d hoped—Schumer never turned my laughter into a yelp of incredulity, as Chris Rock did in Top Five—and I felt disappointed that the ultimate dare for her character was to accept a man’s faithful love, even though he was a nice-looking, internationally renowned surgeon.
So where taboo-breaking is concerned, the sex-education movie to which I gave my heart was The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Marielle Heller’s adaptation of a graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner. Starring the remarkable Bel Powley, a London-born actress in her early 20s who easily gets away with playing a 15-year-old San Francisco native, the movie is the story of young Minnie Goetze’s awakening to many aspects of life: first her sexual possibilities, and through them the frailty of her mother, the stupid spinelessness of her mother’s boyfriend, the unreliability of her contemporaries, and above all her vocation as an artist, which eventually puts the rest into place.
The year is 1976, which helps explain why the mother and boyfriend (Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgård) don’t seem quite grown up. Mom is still trading on her good looks while looking for a good time; the boyfriend has been taking instruction in irresponsibility through the EST seminar; and any substantial sum of money that comes into the old junk-shop-furnished house is likely to result in a party, with plenty of wine, weed, and coke. Minnie—short, blue-eyed, nubile, and impatient—is pretty much left to pursue whatever she likes. That might be cartooning—the drawings, created for the film by Sara Gunnarsdottir, spring to life throughout the movie—or it might be sex with Mom’s boyfriend.
Directed by Heller with a winningly light touch, The Diary of a Teenage Girl doesn’t aim to shock, but neither does it play for laughs. It’s a comedy in the deeper sense: a story about the unstoppable vitality of the young, and the way one particular girl, despite everything, discovers how to use all the energies she’s got.