PANTHER by Melvin Van Peebles


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Filmmaker, composer, and financial analyst Van Peebles (Bold Money, 1986) relies more on movie-like fantasy than accuracy for his first novel -- a historical fiction about the Black Panthers' early years: soon to be released as a movie by the author's son, Marlo. This is truly the Hollywood version of Panther history -- characters are reduced to good guys and bad guys, their struggles into the stuff of action-adventure flicks; the imaginary, incendiary ending comes right from the brutish heroics of Bruce Willis or Eddie Murphy. In Van Peebles's fictional version, the Panthers began in Oakland as an earnest group of local activists protesting government indifference and police brutality. In a moment of lightbulb clarity, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale decide to arm themselves legally and confront the police wherever possible. It's the duo's macho willingness to face down the Man that purportedly wins them followers, from writer and ex-con Eldridge Cleaver to Judge, the Vietnam vet and Berkeley student whose radicalization is at the core of the novel. Overcoming his mother's fears, his own desire to make it in honkie society, and the local preacher's nonviolent strategies, Judge joins the ranks after he suspects the cops have killed his best friend. Because of his collegiate demeanor, he's soon enlisted to become a double agent by Huey himself, who knows the FBI has informers everywhere. When things collapse -- when Newton and Seale are both in jail, and when Cleaver goes underground -- the FBI and the Mob are free to begin their conspiracy to silence the ghetto by flooding the black neighborhoods with drugs. All the sleazy sides to Panther history -- their thuggery, their internal violence, the gangster end of Newton -- are either ignored or explained as reflexive responses to police oppression. A less-than-candid narrative, with fatuous dialogue and hokey dramatics, manages to turn an important and complex story into Hollywood schlock.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1995
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Thunder's Mouth