I never really had much of an association with Oakland before I started working there more than 6 years ago. However, I have really come to love the experiences I’ve had in “The Town” as it’s called, whether it’s sipping a gibraltar at Blue Bottle HQ around Jack London Square, walking around Uptown and Downtown Oakland on a break, taking in a concert at The Fox Theater, or just watching the colors of the sky change over Lake Merritt as the sun sets.
The problem is when people only fixate on the negative aspects of the city. Besides all the great moments that can be had in Oakland, you have to recognize the history of the city and its role in the Civil Rights Movement. Oakland was in fact the birthplace of the Black Panthers by founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale.
The history of the Black Panthers is explored in the new documentary The Black Panthers – Vanguard of the Revolution, which was recently released in theaters. Director Stanley Nelson was featured as a guest on NPR’s Fresh Air last week as the documentary is now slowly releasing across the country. I caught a screening of this film several months ago during the San Francisco International Film Festival and I would most definitely recommend it. For someone like myself who loves Oakland and wanted to understand the history of the city further, The Black Panthers – Vanguard of the Revolution worked well to serve as an introduction.
Nelson condenses the story of the Black Panthers in two hours, providing an education into the group and the role they played in recent American history. The name of the group may conjure up images of formidable looking armed men wearing black jackets and black berets but there was more to it than that, which the documentary shows. First of all, The Black Panthers explains that the name of the party wasn’t picked at random – a panther is not meant to be the aggressor but is only meant to strike when continuously provoked. Second, the documentary highlights a program the general population may not be aware that the Black Panthers were behind – the free breakfast program for children in Oakland in the mid-60s, which was a pretty big deal.
In the documentary, Nelson shows footage of the Black Panthers interspersed with interviews he did with members of the Party who are still around and he even interviews some of the police officers who interacted with the Black Panthers. The documentary also reveals the role that FBI informants from within the organization played, recounting a particular brutal episode in which members of the party were killed because of the actions of an informant.
Director Stanley Nelson does a great job of enlightening the viewer on the story of the Black Panthers. If you have ever heard anything about them and wondered who they were and what they stood for, watch The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. It will surprise you and give you an understanding, and even an appreciation, of a group that has deep roots in the Bay Area.
Check out the documentary website for information release dates in specific cities.
If you’re in the Bay Area, the site also details screenings this upcoming weekend in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland at which the director will be speaking.