“Listen, Whitey!” author Pat Thomas talks about the new Black Panthers doc, “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975″ and more

By on February 16, 2016

Tonight, Tuesday February 16th, at 9pm, KOCE in Los Angeles (and check your local listings for your PBS station and airdates/times) will be airing The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which our contributor Pat Thomas wrote about last year. We’re reposting this one so you get a chance to check it out before the documentary airs. Here’s the post:

With the recent September 4th theatrical release of the Stanley Nelson-directed documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Night Flight thought we’d reach out to our friend, esteemed author and reissue producer Pat Thomas — who spent five years in Oakland, CA, researching Listen, Whitey! The Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 (Fantagraphics, 2012), while befriending members of the Black Panther Party — to get his thoughts on the film, which he worked on as a consultant.

Pat Thomas:

The last couple of years have seen a resurgence in books and films documenting the vibrant and tumultuous years that the Black Panther Party inspired African-American youth and scared the hell out of white middle America.

Perhaps the two best examples are a documentary from Sweden titled The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 which hit the streets just minutes before my book Listen, Whitey! The sights and sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 was published in 2012.

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Black Power Mixtape features raw footage uncovered in the vaults of Swedish National Television – which during those years interviewed the likes of Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, and Angela Davis without political bias or sociological slant.

The film weaves those vintage interviews with positive commentary from contemporary musicians and some of the survivors of the Black Power era.

Listen, Whitey! uses the history of the Black Panther Party as a jumping off point to focus on (mostly obscure) soul, jazz, rock, and folk recordings that were recorded during that time that were inspired by or inspiring to the Black Power Movement as well recordings of speeches, interviews and the like that were produced by the movement spokespeople themselves.

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Now, in 2015 with the muscle of PBS behind him, director Stanley Nelson has taken on the task of trying to tell the definitive story of the Black Panther Party on film with his new work The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution – and while it’s not entirely successful – it is in my opinion as good as of a job as we’re ever gonna get it – and an overdue addendum to the solid coverage given the Panthers in PBS’ own series Eyes on the Prize II [1965-1985] which aired in 1990.

Full disclosure – Stanley Nelson wrote the introduction to Listen, Whitey! just before he embarked on making his film and hired me as a behind the scenes consultant to Vanguard of the Revolution – for which I suggested some of the soundtrack music, offered up film footage from my archives and discussed how he could best secure new interviews with the remaining key Panthers.

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In the end, names like Bobby Seale turned him down, while Elaine Brown did appear – but her role in the story is diminished – for example, she’s the only woman to rise to the role of Chairman of the Party (taking over from Huey Newton when Newton was exiled in Cuba in the mid 70s) – yet this is not mentioned.

However, there are more women interviewed in this Panthers doc than any other I’ve seen including Kathleen Cleaver, Ericka Huggins, and several ‘rank and file’ female staffers.

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What makes Nelson’s film essential is the wealth of period film footage he draws from (he dug through every archive and television station he could find) blending that with a decent narrative told by numerous former Panthers and a handful of scholars. The number of non-famous Panthers included in the film is impressive (as previous films tended to only interview the household names) and while none of the scholars offer illuminating insights, none of them falter either.

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The scholars (especially the blonde white woman) give it the PBS feel that satire merchants like Saturday Night Live eat for breakfast. Nelson and I don’t entirely agree on the music, I feel there’s too much 70s funk and not enough 60s soul – but I was honored to hear the stark solo piano version of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Winter in America” that I uncovered for the Listen, Whitey soundtrack CD used as Vanguard of the Revolution winds down.

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There’s a several points to remember here – the first of which, is something that Chief of Staff David Hilliard told me years ago that still rings in my ears – that MLK’s non-violent tactics worked perfectly in the South, where things were so repressed, that any push-back was aggravating to the white status quo, but in the North where basic rights were more or less tolerated – that the Panthers had to arm themselves to make a bigger point, especially with law enforcement.

Both the Civil Rights and the Black Power Movement were necessary. For far too long, the Black Panther Party legacy has been marginalized in comparison to MLK’s well deserved iconic status. It’s refreshing to see an established media outlet like PBS embrace the Panthers with reverence.

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Despite any critical comments that I’ve made here, I support the overall arc of Vanguard of the Revolution and see it as essential viewing.

Keep in mind one thing while watching it – the Black Panthers were very young at the time (late teens, early twenties for many of them) – so that youthful blend of arrogance and ignorance served them very well on so many levels – until of course, it didn’t.

While it’s easy to blame their ego on their downfall, keep in mind that the American government did everything they could to divide and conquer.

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Pat Thomas was recently featured in our post about San Diego-based musician and filmmaker Jason Blackmore’s documentary Records Collecting Dust. That’s Jason on the left, and Pat on the right:

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As a producer, Pat Thomas has reissued recordings by Allen Ginsberg, Eugene McDaniels, Watts Prophets, and Black Panther Elaine Brown. His music writing has appeared in MOJO, Crawdaddy, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He has lectured at San Francisco State University and Evergreen State College. He lives in Los Angeles.

Pat’s new book, Did It! From Yippie To Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, An American Revolutionary, will be published by Fantagraphics in 2017. You can head over to Amazon to see their listing for his Listen, Whitey! book right here.

About Pat Thomas

Esteemed author and reissue producer Pat Thomas spent five years in Oakland, CA, researching Listen, Whitey! The Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 (Fantagraphics, 2012), and his new book, Did It! From Yippie To Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, An American Revolutionary will be published by Fantagraphics in March 2016. As a producer, Pat Thomas has reissued recordings by Allen Ginsberg, Eugene McDaniels, Watts Prophets, and Black Panther Elaine Brown. His music writing has appeared in MOJO, Crawdaddy, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He has lectured at San Francisco State University and Evergreen State College. He lives in Los Angeles.