Panther is a film that many powerful inhabitants of black Hollywood dreamed of making for years--a biography of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, which started in San Francisco and spread steadily out across the United States, breeding black pride and fostering white rage wherever its members reared their beret-clad heads.
At various junctures in the past few years, Wesley Snipes, HBO, Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, John Singleton, the Hughes Brothers, Morgan Freeman, and Blair Underwood have all tried to bring the group's story to the screen. All of them failed.
The dream has finally become a reality courtesy of father-son team Melvin and Mario Van Peebles, who between them have ignited plenty of new flames in the waning fires of filmdom. The picture represents the fulfillment of a lifelong goal of both men. Father Melvin, who wrote the script and shared producing duties with his son, had personal relationships with Panther principals. Later, his son Mario was immortalized in an article by Huey Newton about Melvin's 1971 antiestablishment, Panther-supported breakthrough film, Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song.
Both Mario's Sweet Sweetback and his son's smash New Jack City, which arrived in American multiplexes two decades later, signaled the beginning of new, influential movie genres. The former inaugurated the blaxploitation era, in which Hollywood sought to capitalize on the African-American moviegoer's hunger for strong black male images, while New Jack's attention to the glitzy side of America's ugly drug and gang cultures proved that a 'hood film could become a crossover smash.
One would think that the Melvin-Mario team-up on Panther, which is tentatively scheduled for release in early summer, would be surrounded by such an aura of urgency and anticipation that some theater owners would already be boarding up the glass fronts of their lobbies. The lack of advance hype is even stranger considering that the film comes on the heels of various criminal scandals involving gangsta rappers and 'hood film stars, not to mention the long, hot summer of the OJ verdict looming ahead.
It's strange, that is, until you actually sit through Panther. For all their legendary impact on American cinema, this project by the Messrs. Van Peebles is a strangely tempered jaunt through the musings of a Panther hanger-on named Judge (Kadeem Hardison), a Vietnam vet who returns to his old neighborhood and joins the Panthers. He's conceived as an Everyman, but a lack of specificity still makes us wonder how such a tightly knit organization, with its 10-point agendas and weapons training programs, would allow an outsider to wander about aimlessly within its confines. (That the script has him acting as an FBI double-agent at the behest of founder Huey Newton lends the tale a rather conspiratorial cast.)
Along the way, the filmmakers have tossed in some Posse-esque and 'hood film characterizations that make the one-dimensional, demonized Panthers showcased in last year's Forrest Gump seem justified. The film's roster of supporting players is full of examples of miscasting and stunt-casting, including Joe Don Baker, a screen icon most closely identified with Walking Tall's club-swinging white vigilante hero Buford T. Pusser, as the San Francisco Police Department's Panther watchdog; Angela Bassett in a cameo as Malcolm X's widow, Betty Shabazz; and a community of comic winos played by Chris Rock, Bobby Brown, and Reginald Ballard, whose awkwardly comedic acting ensures that the film dies an early death as drama.
To compound its problems further, Panther pays only cursory attention to the group's community organization efforts, political philosophy, and worthwhile social programs. In fact, the way the Van Peebles seem to tell it, the story of the Black Panthers is a tale of a small, disjointed band of neighborhood rowdies thrown together at the right time--a band whose disorganized attempts at righteousness, according to the screenplay's conspiratorial musings, caused the FBI to retaliate by unleashing a flood of drugs into the minority community to make its inhabitants complacent and harder to rile up.
All of which is a shame. Panther is an entertaining urban adventure film, to be sure, but it should have been a lot more. It should have been the culmination of the careers of the most potent father-son filmmaking team in movie history. Instead, the film leaves us scratching our heads, not only about the Panthers, but about the motives of the duo that felt compelled to tell their story. They were given extraordinary access for research purposes by ex-Panthers and sympathizers, and because of their personal contact with the movement, they, more than any other film artists, should have realized their obligation to recount this piece of history correctly. Unlike many members of the new crop of black moviemakers, they possess the right combination of industry experience and access to talent needed to create a landmark film about a landmark organization.
It might have helped if Melvin and Mario had heeded some of the quotes they offered to the folks who wrote the film's press kit. "My hope," offers Mario at one point, "is that Panther will allow today's kids to see that great, positive things can be accomplished when you come together as a community."
The only tangible positive thing accomplished by the Panthers in this movie is the installation of a traffic light.
Panther closes the 25th Annual USA Film Festival on Thursday, April 27 at 7:30 p.m. with Mario Van Peebles, and Courtney B. Vance in attendance.
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