I CORDIALLY invite all of Mario Van Peebles' critics to climb down off the man's back.
Since Mr. Van Peebles' latest film, "Panther," opened here last week, he has been the object of much scorn and ridicule. The crime? His fictionalized film version of the Black Panther Party doesn't tell the truth.
Well now, there's a sin. Hollywood fictionalizing a historical event. That's never been done before, right?
Well, of course, it has. White directors do it all the time. John Sturges' "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" bears little resemblance to the real-life story it's based on, yet film critics have praised it for years. Hollywood has depicted the Texas Rangers as heroic dispensers of justice. But, during the Mexican War, Texas Rangers murdered 53 people in Mexico City in retaliation for the murder of one of their own. From 1915 to 1919, they arrested and executed perhaps as many as 5,000 Mexicans without even the pretense of a trial. These Texas Rangers have not been depicted in any major Hollywood film.
Oddly enough, some of the criticism of Mr. Van Peebles' film comes from former Black Panthers. They should be the last to complain. "Panther" actually makes them look better than the dogmatic, arrogant advocates of armed Marxist revolution who I recall strutting the streets of Baltimore.
My dealings with the group were strictly of an adversarial nature. In the 1960s, I belonged to a black nationalist group called the Soul School, which was based in West Baltimore. A Soul School member, Xugunna Lumumba, is generally credited with bringing the Panthers to Baltimore. He eventually left the group because of an ideological rift: The Panthers, as Marxists, advocated alliances with white radicals. The black nationalist Soul School felt history proved such coalitions invariably ended with blacks being double-crossed.
Therein lay the basis for future tensions between the two groups, especially after the Panthers -- without any nudging from the FBI, I might add -- declared war on black nationalists. They contemptuously referred to us as "cultural nationalists" and "pork NTC chop nationalists" -- implying that we were not to be taken seriously.
Some younger Soul School members had formed a Black Student Union (BSU). This did not sit well with the Panthers. On the West Coast the BSU's were virtually Panther youth groups. Baltimore's Panthers erroneously expected the same type of cooperation here. Zeke Boyd -- who then commanded the Panthers in Baltimore -- and some of his minions came swaggering into our meeting one night and took control until Xugunna Lumumba arrived and returned them to reality. I left the meeting with the feeling that the Panthers did not want to lock horns with Xugunna either ideologically or physically.
Xugunna owned a jewelry and clothing shop in the 2100 block of Edmondson Avenue. The Panthers made the mistake one day of leaving a note on his door that read "This shop exploits black people. It needs to be dealt with." They compounded the error by signing it: "the Black Panther Party." Xugunna ripped the note from the door and walked to the Panther headquarters in the 1200 block of Eden Street in East Baltimore.
"Which one of you [expletives] wrote this?" he demanded. He was answered with stunned and wary silence. He then warned them that in the interests of everyone's mutual health -- but mostly theirs -- that it would be best if they stayed away from his shop.
When Xugunna went to visit a friend in Los Angeles later on a purely personal matter, the national Panther newspaper ran his photograph as a notorious "pork chop nationalist" who had come to the city to assassinate a party leader. The lie infuriated us, and it was clear that our relations with the Panthers had reached a low point.
Earlier, some BSU members and I had yet another discussion with Panthers at their headquarters over the use of the name BSU. The organization rightfully belonged to the Panthers, they said. Unless they had copyrighted the name we were going to use it, we answered. They implied there would be trouble because of our "counterrevolutionary position." Captain Hart, who had replaced Zeke Boyd as Panther commander, implied not very subtly that we might get shot.
Word got out that they were coming to Xugunna's shop for a fist-to-face attitude adjustment session with us. About five of us waited for them, but they never showed, much to my relief. When it comes to fighting, I am what the politically correct might call "pugilistically challenged."
Tensions eased after Paul Coates took command of the local chapter. He was articulate, intelligent, reasonable and able to tolerate opposing points of view. We had a debating session one night that left me wondering how he ever got in the Panther party.
But the damage had been done. As onetime Panther Chairman Bobby Seale would later admit, "fools and agents provocateur" had riddled the party, making it ineffective. That and Panther dogmatism -- not Mr. Van Peebles' fictional FBI/mob plot to flood black communities with drugs -- led to its demise.
Gregory Kane is a reporter for The Evening Sun.