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Movie Review: 'The Black Panthers' Documentary

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Our film critic, Kenneth Turan, is here with us today in the studio. And as we've heard over the years, he's a big fan of documentaries.

And so, Ken, you've joined us to talk about one of your favorites from this fall season. It's opening today.

KENNETH TURAN, BYLINE: Well, this is a film - it's called "The Black Panthers: Vanguard Of The Revolution." People probably remember the Panthers from the '60s. They were a movement. They were a political party. And, you know, 50 years has passed since that happened, and that's enough time so that people are willing to be candid about what they remember, but also it's not so much time that they've forgotten. And also the other reason the film is so interesting is that, really, the issues that the Panthers cared about are still very relevant issues today.

MONTAGNE: Well, I take it you're talking about the kinds of things we're reporting on a daily basis - police brutality, racism, economic inequality.

TURAN: Exactly. You know, the Panthers were founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland as a self-defense organization. They were worried about what they perceived as police brutality in their community, and, you know, the Panthers went beyond that. They were a complicated organization. They were so complicated that they often didn't agree themselves about what they were all about. This is a clip of Eldridge Cleaver, who was a key party member, talking about the Panther's signature program, Breakfast for School Children.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELDRIDGE CLEAVER: We have a breakfast for children program, you know, but that's not what the Black Panther Party is all about, you see? The Black Panther Party is for overthrowing the United States government.

TURAN: Well, as you can imagine that overthrowing of the United States government caught the attention of J. Edgar Hoover. And in total secrecy, he mobilized the FBI, and they really determined to destroy the Panther Party by really any means necessary. And a big chunk of the film shows how the FBI went about this.

MONTAGNE: But at the same time, the Panthers became, in certain ways, their own worst enemy.

TURAN: Yes, there was a lot of dissension in the leadership, and, you know, the story of Huey Newton is especially problematic. He was the face of the party. Free Huey was a big slogan of the 1960s. But once he got out of prison, things kind of gradually went south for him. He got involved in a lot of what people felt was unsavory activities. There's a lot of talk in the film about how he disintegrated and met a violent death.

MONTAGNE: Tell us a little bit about the director, Stanley Nelson, who's quite interesting - the sorts of things he's done.

TURAN: Well, Stanley Nelson's a veteran documentary filmmaker. He's won a MacArthur Grant. He's made a lot of films about the black experience, a film about Emmett Till, a film about Freedom Summer. And this is really one of his best films. It's really fascinating. And I think the respect that he has, has helped people be willing to talk to him and be as candid with him as they are in this film.

MONTAGNE: The documentary is "The Black Panthers: Vanguard Of The Revolution." Kenneth Turan is film critic for MORNING EDITION and the Los Angeles Times. Thanks very much.

TURAN: Good to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.