The Spectacular Rise of a Black Power Icon
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Scary radicals par excellence, the Black Panthers took pains to set the terms of their depiction in the media and popular culture—and apart from Forrest Gump, they were largely successful.

So notes Rhodes (American Studies/Macalester College) in this study of the shaping of the Panther image and icon. The N-word–charged scene in which Panthers shake down poor Tom Hanks notwithstanding—a scene that is “little more than a contrivance to highlight Gump’s innocence against the backdrop of such inflammatory rhetoric”—and the Panthers’ depiction of the media as lackeys of the ruling class and therefore enemies, the party was concerned to cultivate a heroic, positive image, at once defiant and statesmanlike. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, for instance, were careful to instruct the “pigs” that any attempt to crack down on their fellow Panthers or the black Bay Area neighborhoods in which they operated would be met with violence, insisting that their stance was defensive. The party was little known outside the Bay Area at first, but local sympathies were translated at a national level. Icons piled on icons—Rhodes notes that the famed photo of Newton seated with a shotgun in one hand and spear in the other went against his contempt for “black cultural nationalists’ embrace of African symbols,” but it made good suitable-for-framing revolutionary art all the same, picked up by the most mainstream of media. Most of Rhodes’s referents will be familiar to anyone who was present at the time, and her narrative seldom picks up above a scholarly trudge, but she does her readers a good turn by extending the Panther story to the present—for, as she reminds us, there are still old Panthers doing good deeds in the black community, even as Islamist “New Panthers” attempt to appropriate the old icons and images for their own causes.

Good reading for the Baudrillard set—and for students of ’60s politics generally.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2007
ISBN: 978-1-56584-961-7
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: New Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 2007


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