Last Saturday afternoon, a diverse group of Yale students and New Haven residents packed into a lecture hall at the Loria Center for what seemed to be a typical showing of the new documentary film, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.” But as the subsequent question-and-answer session with Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway unfolded, it became clear that the event was more than just a screening — it was a springboard for intense dialogue about New Haven’s race relations.
The documentary, directed by Stanley Nelson Jr., depicted the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party, a black nationalist, socialist and militant organization named after an animal known to flee when in danger and to attack only when cornered. Nelson originally planned to speak during the Q&A but was unable to attend Saturday’s screening. Holloway led the discussion, which included a debate concerning why New Haven’s former Black Panther Party members were not contacted to sit on the panel and Yale’s role in defining race relations in New Haven.
“[People] in the audience implied that Yale was just not providing the solution [to various race-related issues] ,” said Jack Lawrence ’18 who attended the screening and the majority of the Q&A session. “It seemed as if [Holloway] refrained from making strong claims about any of the issues brought up, often admitting he didn’t have the answers to many of the locals’ questions and concerns.”
At the onset of the film, viewers are told that to grasp the intricacies of the Black Panther Party one must understand the individuals inside the movement. Thus, Nelson weaves together past and present footage in a close investigation of the organization’s primary actors and opponents.
Nelson’s film opens in Oakland, California, where we are told that the classic Jim Crow-style racism of the American South took on a new guise.
“[Police] might not have called you [the n-word], but they treated you the same,” one documentary interviewee explained.
It was in this coastal town that the aspiring Huey P. Newton first decided to monopolize on his state’s loose gun laws in an attempt to push back against the racial injustice that riddled his nation. Although Newton was unaware of it at the time, his small-scale demonstration of self-defense would soon turn into an international movement for socioeconomic and racial justice.
As the film progressed, the audience learned about the individuals who built the movement: Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver and Fred Hampton.
At the beginning of the Q&A, Holloway explained that while the party was perceived as “violent” and “radical,” the basics of the Panther’s 10-point plan, which demanded decent housing and employment, were far from extreme.
Following Holloway’s observation, a woman in the crowd stood up and proclaimed that the Panther’s agenda has yet to be realized in places like New Haven. In response to the woman’s interjection, Holloway gave a smile of understanding and said, “You took my last line.”
Next, another woman stood up and proclaimed that, “One in seven kids in Connecticut goes to bed hungry. Where do you think these kids live? Not in Greenwich.” She went on to tell Holloway and the audience that, “racial injustice has been perpetuated by Yale.”
Holloway did not directly address this latter accusation, a move Lawrence said he believes was appropriate given that the room was already “loaded with feelings.”
Minutes later, the spotlight turned to George Edwards, a former member of the Black Panther Party, who lamented to the crowd that Yale had not contacted him to sit on Saturday’s Q&A panel.
“I believe the University was advised through various department heads, particularly the Department of African American Studies or the Department of History not to invite me to the panel,” Edwards said in a subsequent interview with the News. “The Connecticut-based New Haven chapter [of which Edwards was a member] had the effect of radicalizing the power between Yale and the poor and primarily black community.”
Edwards expressed grievances he had with the documentary that he did not share at the Q&A.
“I question the chief editing, the editorial staff and the editorialization of the film,” he said. “I would love to see the raw footage. I question the lack of input in the film from former members of the Black Panther Party who were political prisoners.”
As moderator of the Q&A, Kobena Mercer, professor of history of art and African American Studies, noted that when watching Nelson’s film it is important to consider the choices a documentarian must make to tell a story as complex as that of the Black Panther Party and to question if one film can ever tell the whole story.
African American Studies Department chair Jacqueline Goldsby GRD ’98 said that Edwards had visited her department on Nov. 12 in order to discuss the screening. Although Goldsby was unavailable to speak with Edwards at the time, her office staff gave him Goldsby’s office hours and phone number, Goldsby said. Edwards never followed up, she added. Goldsby also noted that the event had been planned on a weekend and in a venue that was easily accessible to public transportation. Additionally, the screening was advertised in New Haven’s African-American newspaper, Inner-City News, to publicize the screenings beyond the University.
“Given our approach to our public programming, the African American Studies Department had no reason or plan to exclude Edwards from speaking to or about the film,” Goldsby said.
Despite Edwards’s absence from the panel, Mercer said the film sparked collective dialogue between community members of all ages.
“The applause George Edwards received in acknowledgement of his historical role in the black-freedom struggle was as significant as all the other topics expressed in the Q&A, from residential segregation in New Haven to what schools should be doing to inspire black kids,” Mercer said.
The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966.