If you haven’t seen these two films I’d encourage you to make watching them a Black History Month project.
Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, is available for streaming on the PBS website. It’s likely to be broadcast again this month.
The story of the Panthers offers lessons on the power and limitations of political violence. As the arc of the movement plays out, you can see the challenges facing an insurgent movement, particularly when it fails to establish “legitimate” political control around a base geography. But beyond the political failure of the movement lay an impressive set of achievements.
We think of the Black Panthers as a political movement, but their most powerful legacy may be an aesthetic. Long after their leaders had been jailed, murdered or scattered, that legacy continues to bear fruit.
People who know virtually nothing about politics can see the image above and recognize a Black Panther. Where SCLC protestors in South embraced an aesthetic of conformity and compliance, a look that emphasized their essential human sameness with their white brothers, the Panthers wove their message of black independence into their clothes, their hair, and their walk.
As a political revolution it was quickly crushed, but as a cultural force it continues to spread. The Black Panthers preached an unapologetic black identity, a powerful validation of Blackness. They spawned a defiant pride in the same aesthetics that had been used to denigrate them in the past. Their legacy was pride.
I Am Not Your Negro was on PBS last month and will probably appear again. You can also watch it on Amazon or on your cable provider’s streaming service. The film is a digest of notes, letters, and an unfinished manuscript from James Baldwin, read by Samuel L. Jackson. In typical Baldwinesque form, it is relentlessly cutting and dark. It is not, however, pessimistic. Unlike other similarly razor-tongued social critics like H.L. Mencken, the power of Baldwin’s prose is its strange sense of compassion. Baldwin writes about white Americans with an intimacy and empathy that lends a unique horror to his condemnations. He’s not merely ranting in angry slogans through a bullhorn, he’s laying bare the heart-deep intricacies of a family drama.