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Storyville: The Black Panthers

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©Pirkle Jones/Ruth-Marion Baruch Black Panther women in the late 1960s
Anyone who expects Storyville: The Black Panthers to be a straightforward saga of struggle between black and white, in all senses, will be riveted by the ambiguities, contradictions and paradoxes of Stanley Nelson’s feature-length film, with its lost leaders and flawed heroes, idealists and hypocrites, unabashed Machiavellian duplicity (usually the state’s) and the awful current resonance of authoritarian violence by one section of society on another.

The Black Panthers started in 1966 as a defence group, assembling whenever police appeared to be threatening black citizens for no reason. As many women as men enlisted, and from the beginning they disliked the fierce macho element of some Panthers. After 1969 social work included breakfast kitchens for poor kids, although famous BP spokesmen such as Eldridge Cleaver mocked the do-gooding and, from the safe haven of Algeria, urged more bloodshed.

But it was a moment when traditional suspicions seemed to be eroding, when hillbillies and Appalachian whites, often through the medium of churchgoing, moved towards underprivileged blacks. The state took fright, and the undeniable villain of the piece, J Edgar Hoover, saw black and redneck unthinkably uniting as a forerunner to revolution. There followed spies, plants, blackmail, even massacres — one raid left a Panther apartment resembling a slaughterhouse, its bloody walls ridden with bullet-holes.

Archive film alternates with interviews. Sympathisers, cops, FBI workers and historians articulately sift the fanatics on both sides, paranoiacs included, from the rest. The film is as gripping, its cast as varied and vivid, as anything Hollywood could dream up. There are plenty of tragic figures, the most complex being the charismatic Huey Newton, released after years of wrongful imprisonment, using the drugs trade as a weapon, going mad and corroded with suspicion in his luxury penthouse before being gunned down in street violence.

There was also incongruity: the bloodthirsty Cleaver became a born-again Christian and endorsed Ronald Reagan. And, as police violence against African-Americans is again in the spotlight, the terrible question lingers: labels may change, but does history just repeat itself?

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