Tackling the legacy of the Black Panthers isn’t an easy thing to do. Much like the movement itself, Stanley Nelson’s powerful and provocative documentary, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (which premieres on PBS on Tuesday Feb. 16 at 9 p.m. ET), has been dogged by ignorance, misunderstanding, polemics, backlash, finger pointing and blame. Which is exactly why he made the movie.
As Nelson has pointed out on more than one occasion: “I wanted to offer a unique and engaging opportunity to examine a very complex moment in time that challenges the cold, oversimplified narrative of a Panther who is prone to violence and consumed with anger. Thoroughly examining the history of the Black Panther Party allowed me to sift through the fragmented perceptions and find the core driver of the movement: the Black Panther Party emerged out of a love for their people and a devotion to empowering them.” (You can listen to his full 2015 NPR interview here.)
Getting the Music Right
Nelson also wanted to get the music right. “As a great lover of music,” Nelson has written about the film, “I wanted to capture this sentiment in the music we used to give audiences a sense of the time and the undercurrents of change and revolution.”
He enlisted Pat Thomas, a self-described music historian, pop sociologist and “counterculture” aficionado to serve as a musical consultant on the Black Panther documentary.
As a music historian myself, co-author of We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War with Craig Werner, I was interested in hearing what Thomas had to say about his experience. “I was not the music guy for the film,” Thomas told me, “but I did make some suggestions to Stanley about what music I thought should be featured in the film.”
More Soul Than Funk
Not all his suggestions were taken. Thomas told me he would have included Dancing in the Streets, the 1964 classic by Martha and the Vandellas. “For me, the Black Panthers were more connected to soul music than funk,” Thomas said. “Stanley leaned a little too heavily on funk, which became more popular later.”
Our conversation prompted me to look back at my notes from scores of conversations with Vietnam vets over the past 10 years. Sure enough, I found several references to the Black Panthers and to Black Power.
Vietnam in many ways exacerbated racial injustice. I remembered hearing Time Has Come Today by the Chambers Brothers (1968) a lot in “soul hooches” in Vietnam — especially the 11-minute version that speaks to fighting for civil rights, social justice and an end to the Vietnam War, with its constant repetition of the word “Time!”
4 Great Songs in the Film
That one didn’t make Nelson’s soundtrack either. Here are four great songs that did — songs that take us back and enhance our understanding of the Black Panthers in a way only music can:
For God’s Sake Give More Power to the People by The Chi Lites
Best known for their hit, Have You Seen Her?, The Chi Lites released this song in 1971 just as the Black Panther movement was starting to splinter. But that doesn’t diminish the power of their message, which suits the mood of the times and the film: “So whatever you got, just be glad you got it/Now we’re gonna get on up an’ get some more of it/For God’s sake, you got to give more power to the people/For God’s sake, why don’t you give more power to the people?”
Express Yourself by Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band
“No one wanted to record the song,” Wright told LA Weekly about his surprising 1970 hit. “I had to sneak a bass player, drummer, and engineer into the studio one Sunday and cut it in secret. The president of Warner Brothers told me I made a mistake. So did every DJ that I played it for. But I had a feeling that it was a hit. I always tried to keep it genuine. Nothing less, nothing more.”
The lyrics are genuine, too, and true to the motivations of the late 1960s and early 1970: “Some people have everything, and other people don’t/But everything don’t mean a thing if it ain ‘t the thing you want.”
We Know We Have to Live Together by Eugene Blacknell and The New Breed
Even though this came on the scene later (1973), Blacknell’s song seems to encapsulate the transition from soul to funk, and the lyrics fit: “I’m so glad trouble don’t last always/no it don’t.”
Winter in America by Gil Scott-Heron
Something that Thomas, Nelson and I can agree on is that that this is the perfect song to end the film. Again a later arrival (1974), Gil Scott-Heron’s mood has never been darker nor his words more sobering. He conceived Winter in America amid seismic social, economic and political issues of the early 1970s. In many ways, the movement and the hope was gone from America by then, especially for the Black Panther Party, which J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI had declared war on, claiming it “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” As the lyrics said: “And I see the robins/Perched in barren treetops/Watching last-ditch racists marching across the floor/But just like the peace sign that vanished in our dreams/Never had a chance to grow/Never had a chance to grow.”