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PBS documentary explores The Black Panther Party

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Director Stanley Nelson Jr., from left, Ericka Huggins and Jamal Joseph participate in "The Black Panthers" panel at the PBS Winter TCA on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, in Pasadena, Calif. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
Director Stanley Nelson Jr., from left, Ericka Huggins and Jamal Joseph participate in "The Black Panthers" panel at the PBS Winter TCA on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, in Pasadena, Calif. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
Director Stanley Nelson Jr., from left, Ericka Huggins and Jamal Joseph participate in “The Black Panthers” panel at the PBS Winter TCA on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, in Pasadena, Calif. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
From Wire Reports

Change was coming to America and the fault lines could no longer be ignored — cities were burning, Vietnam was exploding and disputes raged over equality and civil rights. A new revolutionary culture was emerging, and it sought to drastically transform the system.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense would, for a short time, put itself at the vanguard of that change. Directed, produced and written by Stanley Nelson, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” premiered on “Independent Lens” Tuesday, Feb. 16 on PBS.

“The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” is the first feature-length documentary to explore the Black Panther Party, its significance to the broader American culture, its cultural and political awakening for black people and the painful lessons wrought when a movement derails. Master documentarian Nelson goes straight to the source, weaving a treasure trove of rare archival footage with the voices of the people who were there: police, FBI informants, journalists, white supporters and detractors and Black Panthers who remained loyal to the party and those who left it.

The documentary begins in a riotous flutter of revolutionary flash, set to a pulsating soul power soundtrack circa 1966. An infuriated knot of activists in Oakland who initially called themselves The Vanguard, sick and tired of being treated as punching bags and shooting targets by the local cops, organized their own watchdog units to follow the police and keep them from mistreating anybody. Realizing that California state law allowed them to carry guns in public, they did just that, and set off a firestorm. They could protest all they wanted that they were simply following their constitutional rights, but all the police and politicians saw was the threat of open revolt.

The film goes on to track the group’s brilliant political theater, designed to highlight the absurdity of laws against open carry suddenly being passed once black people had the temerity to follow it. The media images of these seemingly staunch militants refusing to be cowed by the establishment, and being very clear about being “ready to throw down” if the cops got out line, shocked a white establishment already nervous about the speed with which the civil rights movement had notched up victories.

Featuring Kathleen Cleaver, Jamal Joseph and dozens of others, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” is a vibrant chronicle of this pivotal movement that gave rise to a new revolutionary culture in America.

“Stanley Nelson is one of our greatest chroniclers of American movements for justice and social change,” said Lois Vossen, “Independent Lens” executive producer. “From the ill-fated People’s Temple to the idealistic young volunteers of Freedom Summer, from the Native American uprising at Wounded Knee to the Black Panther movement, he brings these incendiary, game-changing movements to vivid life in a way that combines clear-eyed analysis with riveting, edge-of-your-seat storytelling.”

Visit the Black Panthers page on “Independent Lens,” which features more information about the film. “The Black Panthers: Vanguards of the Revolution” will be available on DVD and Blu-ray from PBS Distribution on Feb. 16. The DVD and Blu-ray can be purchased by going to ShopPBS.org or calling 800-PLAY-PBS.

The Amsterdam News contributed to this report.

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