Like his films, Mario Van Peebles is an infuriating mixed bag. He has a vibrant, video-age eye, a good ear for conversational dialogue, and a strong grasp of how to get an audience riled up. But he's neither a great artist nor a formidable thinker. Like Kenneth Branagh and Oliver Stone, he elicits primal emotions in the crudest way possible--by tilting the camera to indicate disorientation, filling the soundtrack with ultra-low bass hums to signify that something important is happening, and whooshing his camera up to a god's-eye view every time somebody dies. (He even has a key villain shoot a cute dog at point-blank range to establish what a mean guy he is--a sure sign that a filmmaker has no shame.)
It's idiotic to argue that Panther would have been a better film if it had hewed more closely to the facts, because art is art and history is history, and one is almost never capable of performing the function of the other. The best a movie can hope to do is convey a generally truthful (and primarily emotional) impression of a time, a place, and its people--to sketch human footprints in the shifting sands of time.
But Panther rarely even manages that. Part of being a good historian is the ability to deftly underline crucial but small moments. There are no small moments in Panther. Quiet scenes are played at an epic pitch and epic scenes can make your ears and eyes bleed. The end result is a gripping, free-form, wildly imprecise riff on history--a simplistic film about a difficult subject.
Panther. Gramercy. Kadeem Hardison, Marcus Chong, Courtney B. Vance, Joe Don Baker, M. Emmett Walsh, Bokeem Woodbine. Script by Melvin Van Peebles. Directed by Mario Van Peebles. Now showing.