(This article appears in Elaine Richards & Ronald Jackson, Innovations in African-American Rhetoric, University of Illinois Press, 2002.)

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, WHILE BROWSING THE “AFRICAN AMERICAN” section of a local bookstore, I picked up Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member (1994), by Sanyika Shakur, also known as Monster Kody Scott. I had been rereading Blood in My Eye, the last work of incarcerated Black Panther Party associate George Jackson, and a blurb on the back cover of Monster caught my eye. A reviewer claimed that, like George Jackson, Sanyika Shakur had made a “complete political and personal transformation… from Monster to Sanyika Shakur, Black nationalist, member of the New Afrikan Independence Movement and crusader against the causes of gangsterism.” When I began to read the book, I had no idea that it was going to relate to my decade-long study of the narratives and myths of the Vietnam War or that my reading would result in a new understanding of the power and attractiveness of Vietnam War imagery to Black youth. This imagery, as my readings reveal, serves as a bridge between the consciously ideological and radical formulations of the Black Panther Party and the politically incoherent and image-obsessed world of mainstream contemporary Black youth culture.

In this essay, I examine the revision of the image of the Black Panther, refracted through the lens of the popular history of the Vietnam War. The erasure of explicit political ideology in much of mainstream contemporary Black popular culture is intimately connected to the way in which mythic narratives and iconography of the Vietnam War have replaced the critical economic and social analysis so prevalent in the 1960s.

The rehabilitation of the image of the (white) Vietnam veteran was begun with the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial wall in Washington, D.C., in 1982, and completely affected by the renewal of American “pride” and U.S. imperialism via the celebration and patriotic rhetoric surrounding the Gulf War.1 In Black popular culture, the consciously political, often explicitly Marxist, rhetoric of the Black Panthers and other Black liberation workers has been worn away until almost all that is left is the image of the black clad, leather-jacketed, beret-wearing Black man with a gun, bereft of political or ideological coherence. Monster is the text in my hand, but as I hope to illustrate, it is representative of a much larger trend.

In 1960, George Jackson was convicted of stealing seventy dollars from a gas station and given a sentence of one year to life. In prison, he “met Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Engels and Mao” and began to study economics and military history. It became Jackson’s goal “to transform the Black criminal mentality into a Black revolutionary mentality” (G. Jack- son, 1994, p. iii). Jackson didn’t start off as a political prisoner, but he slowly became one as he was radicalized first by his reading and then through his growing connections to revolutionary organizations outside the prison walls and his own attempts to organize inside prison. Jackson was shot and killed by guards inside San Quentin on August 21, 1971, during an alleged escape attempt. He had several times voiced the conviction that there was a conspiracy against his life.

The literature of the Black Power Movement of the 1960s and early 1970s was self-consciously ideological. As Gwendolyn D. Pough describes in her essay “Rhetoric that Should Have Moved the People: Rethinking the Black Panther Party” in this volume, much Panther rhetoric was so explicitly Marxist that at times its dogmatism and employment of jargon alienated rather than attracted the Black public. As Pough points out, though, the Panthers’ message and self-presentation was effective enough to draw a large number of African Americans to their cause, to strike sympathetic chords in white radicals, and to frighten the white establishment severely enough that the Panthers were awarded the title of “Public Enemy Number One” on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s infamous Most Wanted list.

Blood in My Eye begins with Jackson’s description of the path of Black radicalism, from “the confused flight to national revolutionary Africa, through the riot stage of revolutionary Black Amerika.” Jackson wrote, “We have finally arrived at scientific revolutionary socialism with the rest of the colonial world.” And he comments—with relief—to a fellow activist, “I was hoping that you wouldn’t get trapped in the riot stage like a great many other very sincere brothers. I have to browbeat them every day down here. They think they don’t need ideology, strategy or tactics. They think being a warrior is quite enough. And yet, without discipline or direction, they’ll end up washing cars, or unclaimed bodies in the city-state’s morgue.” Jackson goes further, “The only independent African societies today are socialistic. Those which allowed capitalism to remain are still neo-colonies. Any Black who would defend an Afri- can military dictatorship is as much a fascist as Hoover” (1990, p. ii).

Jackson carefully separated “rioting” from armed struggle, which he called “the very heart of revolution.”
I'm convinced that any serious organizing of people must carry with it from the start a potential threat of revolutionary violence. With- out [the threat of violence], the establishment forces will suc- ceed in isolating the political organizer and closing down his project before the people can feel its benefits. Self-determi- nation requires a small, hidden, highly trained army equipped with the very best and most destructive of military weapons, and a bodyguard of counter-terrorists. (1990, p. ii)
I spend a great deal of my time immersed in the rhetoric of Black lib- eration. It’s easy for me to forget that most Americans—Black or white— haven’t heard this kind of clearly expressed radical political rage in almost a quarter of a century. But I am regularly reminded each time I teach a course on the 1960s and my students—Black and white—(almost all born after 1980)—express astonishment when exposed to it.

They are not astonished at the bold style of the Black Liberation Movement, for many of them are well acquainted with the equally bold posturing of the gangsta rappers who inhabit the urban airwaves. Black men posing with guns are either thrilling or intimidating (depending on their perspective) but certainly not new to my students. What does surprise them is the pervasiveness of political references in Panther texts—-from Fanon to Ché to Memmi to Marx to Mao—-and the authors’ ex- plicit identification as a socialist or communist, words that my students cannot, usually, even define.

Political scientist Michael Dawson argues that a venue for Black public discussion—-what he calls a “counterpublic” because it provides a space for an alternative to the white public sphere—-existed in the 1960s and early 1970s in the form of both church and secular organizations within the Black community where intense political debate and practice proliferated. Dawson claims:
Black workers caucuses..., community-based civil rights and Black power organizations all provided forums for debate over the direction of Black liberation, the relation of the Black political action to political activity occurring throughout the policy, and created an environment that closely linked political debate to political action. These overlapping sets of discourse communities provided the foundation for many of the social movements of Blacks and whites during the height of the activism a generation ago." (1995, p.211)
But Dawson believes that this counterpublic sphere was undermined by a combination of “state repression and internal dissension.” COINTELPRO (the FBI and police counterintelligence program) activities instigated intergroup violence, legal fights drained organizational coffers, and a withdrawal into race-interest-specific cadres fragmented a unified movement of people of color.2 Economic factors also weakened the Black counterpublic sphere as a “structural shift in the U.S. economy away from manufacturing and toward low-wage service industries eroded the institutional base of the Black counterpublic, and, in particular its points of contact with other oppositional forces.” Finally, the Reagan presidential administration launched a “massive ideological attack on the fruits of the Civil Rights Movement, refusing to talk with the established leadership of the Black community, and working to systematically overturn Black victories in the areas of voting rights, anti-segregation legislation, education, and economic advancement” (Dawson, 1995, p. 221).

What does the decline of the Black counterpublic have to do with Sanyika Shakur’s Monster? First, it suggests that Monster is a text produced in isolation from other African American texts or, rather, in relation only to an idiosyncratic and limited number of other texts that are not representative of anything that might have, in the 1960s and early 1970s, comprised Black counterpublic discourse. It also means that Monster is heavily influenced by the white popular culture texts to which Sanyika Shakur has been exposed, and which–without a tradition of Black critical discourse-—he is helpless to critique.

Whereas George Jackson uncovered a lost history of critical exchange between African American and Third World intellectuals that connected him to a political conversation dating back to the early nineteenth cen- tury, Sanyika Shakur’s narrative is almost entirely based on personal references. He says he considered himself a communist for a while but changed his mind because communism is, in his words, a Eurocentric philosophy. He fell out with the political study group in San Quentin because he believed,
We were making the same mistakes that the Black Panthers had made. We were importing revolutionary ideals, trying to apply them to our setting. In this light, those who could quote Marx, Mao, or Comrade George the most were the sharpest. It began to irritate the hell out of me. Nothing was corresponding with concrete conditions, and we had no mass appeal. On top of this, our troops sent back out into Babylon were falling prey to parochialism and tribalism. (1994, p. 349)
Rather than blaming the failure of the Panthers on state repression (un-like both Dawson and Pough who placed the blame on COINTELPRO), Shakur places the responsibility for failure on the Panthers’ “imported revolutionary ideals.” Shakur returns to a condition of alienation, embracing a traditional (white) American individualism that leads him, inevitably, into despair over his own powerlessness and a personal belief that the only solution is separation of the races. Back in jail for attacking a local drug dealer and “confiscating” his vehicle, at the conclusion of Monster Shakur is hopeless and defeated.

What struck me most forcefully in my reading of Monster was not any connection between Shakur’s text and the writings of African American revolutionaries who preceded him but the similarity between Monster and popular culture narratives of the Vietnam War, such as Oliver Stone’s Platoon. In fact, Monster concludes with Shakur’s comparison of the Rodney King uprising to the Vietnam War:
[The beating of Rodney King] brought the realization of my powerlessness crashing down upon me, and with it, my rage and appetite for destruction rose. It was while in this mind- set that I clearly overstood the agitated rage meted out dur- ing the 1992 rebellion in Los Angeles, which was truly sur- prising to me. I wasn’t surprised that it occurred—that was inevitable. But I was surprised by the swiftness with which it unfolded. Some people say that the participants burned their own neighborhoods, which seems as crazy as saying that the Vietnamese destroyed their land to rout out the Ameri- cans. (Shakur, 1994, p. 342)
Here, Sanyika Shakur identifies with the Vietnamese, in opposition to the occupying army of Americans, and he contests the “official” version of the war by questioning those people who made statements equivalent to that of the apocryphal American officer who claimed “we had to destroy this village in order to save it.” But in Shakur’s version, the victory of the National Liberation Front is hardly conceivable, since he con- cludes that the United States’ 130-year-old experiment with multiculturalism has failed, that the country is dividing like Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that separation is the only solution.

Despite his intermittent identification with the Vietnamese, Shakur’s narrative is far from politically coherent. A mythologized “history” of the Vietnam War has replaced political ideology in his narrative, and this fictive “history” underlies much of African American contemporary popular culture. The demise of the Black counterpublic sphere has resulted in the substitution of a white-constructed, Black-reconstructed popular culture iconography—-an iconography in which the Vietnam War is widely represented. Shakur refers to his neighborhood as “in-country” and “the war zone.” He speaks of his participation “in the war” and uses Vietnam-era words and phrases such as free fire zone and escalation to describe it. Though he sometimes refers to his job responsibilities in the Crips gang in terms also adopted by the Black Panther Party (minister of information, minister of defense), he is more likely to use military language. Young Crips are “recruited.” He describes an attack on a rival gang as “our own little Tet offensive.” But whereas Huey Newton took the next step and equated the African American struggle for freedom with the Vietnamese war for liberation (actually offering to send a unit of Panthers over to assist Ho Chi Minh in his struggle) (1971, p. 78), Shakur simply moves on to another topic, either unable or unwilling to introduce ideological arguments into his text.

The Vietnam War had an enormous effect on the Black Liberation Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Many members of Black radical organizations were veterans of the Vietnam War and put their military training to use organizing Black self-defense groups. The connections that Black activists were making with the war in those days were explicitly and entirely political—-the Vietnam War was “a white man’s war,” an “imperialist war” waged by white capitalist America on a Third World nation whose people fought for political independence and self-determination. In Monster, the war has lost its historicity and been turned into a landscape in which “free fire zones” exist without political meaning, where the underlying “story” of the conflict goes without saying. Caught in a war without meaning, stripped of ideological tools for analysis, Shakur is doomed to impotence and failure, despite his struggle to change his life. Only ideology can provide the basis for structural change, and structural change is what it will take to end gang warfare.

In contemporary pop culture terms, the platform of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Movement has been reduced to the image of the black-leather-jacketed, black-beret-wearing Black man with a gun. And the image of the Black Vietnam War veteran has become indistinguishable from the image of the Black liberation fighter. The key word here is image, which necessarily goes without saying. If ideology was the heart of the Black Liberation Movement, and image was used to underline ideology, then today’s representations of that movement directly contradict its intent, entirely replacing ideology with image. As Angela Davis notes in Black Popular Culture, many producers of Black popular culture today “call upon a market-mediated historical memory of the Black movement of the sixties and seventies. The image of an armed Black man is considered the ‘essence’ of revolutionary commit- ment today” (1999, p. 325).

Though I do not have the space to fully explore the meaning of Vietnam War imagery in rap music, I would like to briefly discuss a few of the Panther/Vietnam War crossovers made in this medium, with particular focus on gangsta rap. Rap is one of the most widely disseminated contemporary Black popular culture productions, and the popularity of gangsta rap is evident well beyond the neighborhoods and the culture that spawned it. Because of its wide distribution, no discussion of Black popular culture can exclude these texts from its critique.

Carlos Morrison’s article, “Death Narratives from the Killing Fields” (2003) details the war imagery in gangsta rap and explicitly links it to the rhetoric employed by Sanyika Shakur in Monster. Adopting Cornel West’s description of inner city Black America as “the killing fields” (a phrase referencing the killing fields of Cambodia, via the Hollywood movie of the same name), Morrison accepts gangsta rappers’ descriptions of themselves as soldiers “warring over territory or ‘turf,’ drugs or even gang colors.” This image is, in fact, so ubiquitous that it appears self-evident. But there is a great deal of irony in this reading. While Shakur explicitly draws on the Vietnam War for his imagery, in Monster he is demonstrably unclear about the Black liberation fighter’s position on imperialist wars. When Sanyika Shakur’s Vietnam War references pass through Morrison’s hands, they are further stripped of ideological meaning, dislocated to the point where they can be employed to describe a situation in which “Black men are ‘at war’ with other Black men.” The end result of this slippage is the elision of the real enemy-—the racist state.

“Soldier” imagery is so pervasive and so rarely critiqued that the militarization of images of Black youth now seems “natural” and it most often goes without saying. A weakened Black counterpublic cannot ensure that references to the Vietnam War are historicized or linked to antiracist, anticapitalist, anti-imperialist struggle, nor can it effectively counter the appropriation of the “Black soldier” image by white mainstream image producers in film, television, music, or literature.

Angela Davis warns us that “[w]here cultural representations do not reach out beyond themselves, there is the danger that they will function as surrogates for activism, that they will constitute both the beginning and end of political practice” (1999, p. 327). Gangsta rap seems to embody this dilemma perfectly—-adopting the posture of the Black man with the gun without the ideologies that motivated Black liberationists. Fur- thermore, as Hazel Carby notes, “Black cultural texts have become fictional substitutes for the lack of any sustained social or political relationships with Black people in a society that has retained many of its historical practices of apartheid in housing and schooling” (1999, p. 249). Black gangsta rap may be largely perceived throughout mainstream and African American contemporary popular culture as the current ex- tent of and reflection of Black activism, particularly since the limitations that Dawson described have cut away at the amount of available space for a Black counterpublic.

When I lecture to my classes about the Panthers, I often play a clip from a documentary film made in 1968, titled No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger.3 I queue it up to a segment of an interview with Akmed Lorence, a young Black Vietnam War veteran explaining to his White interviewer why he is so angry about the political and racial situation in the United States, and what he intends to do about it. Because the film is so hard to find today, it is worth quoting Lorence at length:
You know this revolution is filled with so many ironies, really. First you tell us that it is manly to keep your word. If you are a man, you keep your word. And now all that the black people in this country are demanding, and even that the black people in the whole world are demanding. is that you keep your word. And let us see the justice and equality for all. Or else admit to us that you're not a man, you're a worm, you're afraid of us, you're afraid to give us equal standing. You're afraid that if you give us equal ground, that we will match you and override you. And if that's what you're afraid of, then tell us that's what you're afraid of. But don't keep hiding it from us and holding [welfare] up to us, and every time we ask you for something you give us a little bit of something, and it's all tokenism. We don't want tokenism. Most black men in this world don't want charity. And yet, still, every time we ask you for something you give us a little piece, a little piece. You're playing games with us. We're not children; we're big men. I've seen my father have to put up with all kinds of stuff. He was a big man. He raised a family. He went down south and he had to go around to the back door with his wife. We're not asking for anything, we're not asking for any favors. All we're asking for is what's ours. Now, there are many black veterans who are coming back and they're mad, they're angry. Do you think that they're going to sit down through this? Our fathers didn't have the knowledge that we have. They sat through it. But there are other black youth that are not going to sit through it. We know about Che . We. We know about Fanon. We've read the books of revolution. We've listened to Mao and his quotations. We know where we stand. And we're not gonna sit for it. We're asking, and if we ask and we don't get, we're prepared to take it. If I ask a man, I tell him I am hungry, I tell him I am cold, and I ask him to do something about my condition, and this man holds a loaf of bread right in front of me so I can see it, and I keep asking him, I'm begging him to please give me a slice of the loaf of bread, I am hungry, then it is known by every psychologist in the country that I am going to knock him upside the head and take the bread from him. I'm not going to starve to death.

All we're asking—no one wants to see blood, no one likes the smell of blood, no one wants war, anyone who has been in war doesn't want war. Every [vet] knows what it's like to see the inside of a man's gut hanging out, and see your friends die, see relatives die. No one wants to regress back to the state of mind where you think, "It's all for the cause, therefore my mother has to die, my wife has to die, my brothers and sisters have to die." No one wants that. But you're pushing us to it. You're leaving us no choice. We're asking. We're begging. The students up at Columbia, they asked. The brothers down south asked. The brothers in Latin America, the brothers in Africa, they're all asking. All they're doing is asking. Our fathers asked. Our grandfathers asked. And yet, still, they asked and asked and asked and you refused to give them anything. And we're just about out of patience. We're not gonna ask any more And we're not going to take it. We're not going to take sitting in rotten parks and in places that just aren't fit for living. We're not going to take it. There's a limit to a man's patience and everyone knows that what we're asking for is humanity. We're asking to be allowed to live like human beings. And, God., you tell us that this is too much to ask. You're sick! You're definitely sick! How can you tell me that it's too much to ask to be a human being?
Lorence’s rhetoric is remarkably convincing, and he has explicit politics. Throughout the film, he connects his ability to formulate revolutionary ideas with his connection to the ideas of other Third World radical intellectuals. He identifies with the Vietnamese and is ready to go to war with the United States. The other two veterans interviewed on the tape express similar sentiments. I’d like to note the difference between Lorence and all the Black Vietnam War veterans and soldiers that have since been portrayed on film (by Black or white directors).4 Lorence has a program. He is, as they say in the military, a highly motivated individual. He has an agenda of his own and a plan to help his people. I play this segment because of the notable absence of such characters on the current popular culture scene, Black or white. Lorence and the other Black veterans interviewed in No Vietnamese… were hardly unique in that era. Geronimo Ji-Jaga Pratt earned eighteen combat decorations in Vietnam before his transformation from U.S. soldier to Black Panther Party leader (Churchill & Vander Wall, 1988, p. 77). The question is why men like this have been erased from history, why they are absent from both white and Black contemporary popular culture productions.

I often contrast Lorence’s fiery speech with a clip from John Singleton’s celebrated directorial debut, Boyz in the Hood (1991). Boyz features Laurence Fishburne as a Vietnam veteran, an advocate of armed self-defense, and a Black community activist. But Fishburne’s character, tellingly named “Furious,” is no revolutionary. Below is a transcript of the speech he gives when he takes his son, Tre, and Tre’s young friend out to Compton and lectures them on the need for Black economic solidarity. He drives them out there to show them a billboard that reads “Seoul to Seoul Real Estate: Cash for your homes.” As he talks, local gang members (who make his middle-class son and friend nervous) and an old man gather around to listen.
Furious: It's the Nineties. We can't afford to be afraid of our own people anymore. I want y'all to take a look at that sign up there and see what it says. Cash for your home. Know what that is? What are y'all? Amos and Andy? You Steppin' and he's Fetchit? I'm talking about the message—what it stands for. It's called gentrification. It's what happens with the property value of a certain area is brought down. Huh, you listening? Bring the property value down, they can buy the land at a lower price. Then they move all the people out,. Raise the property value, and sell it at a profit. Now, what we need to do is keep everything in our neighborhood—everything—black. Black owned with black money, just like the Jews, the Italians, the Mexicans, and the Koreans do.

Old man: Ain't nobody from outside bringing down the property value. It's these folk [gestures at the gang members], shooting each other and selling that crack rock and shit.

Furious: How you think the crack rock gets into the country? We don't own any planes. We don't own no ships. We are not the people who are flying and floating that shit in here. I know every time you turn on the TV that's what you see—black people selling the rock, pushing the rock, pushing the rock. But that wasn't a problem as long as it was here. That wasn't a problem until it was in Iowa, and it showed up on Wall Street where there are hardly any black people. And if you wanna talk about guns, why is it that there's a gun shop in almost every block in this community? For the same reason that there's a liquor store in almost every corner of the black community. They want us to kill ourselves. You don't see that shit in Beverly Hills. But they want us to kill ourselves. Yeah, the best way you can kill a people is you take away their ability to reproduce themselves. Who is that dying out here in these streets every night? Young brothers like yourselves!

Gang member: What am I supposed to do? Fool roll up and try to smoke me, I'm gonna shoot the motherfucker, he don't kill me first.

Furious: You doing exactly what they want you to do! You have to think, young brother, about your future.6
Playing off the “Seoul to Seoul” billboard, Furious launches into an argument for Black economic self-sufficiency, Black capitalists reinvesting in their own communities, and Black self-help programs, just as the “Jews and Orientals” have. Ideologically, Furious seems confused. On the one hand, he supports capitalism. On the other hand, he believes in a nationwide anti-Black conspiracy that encourages Black drug use in the ghetto,7 promotes media images of Blacks as drug dealers, seeds Black urban areas with liquor stores and gun shops, and prevents Black people from reproducing themselves—-hardly a situation that can be resolved by adopting a particular economic strategy. Furious’s rhetoric pushes lots of sympathetic buttons in Black and white-liberal audiences (including the button of anti-Asian racism, underlined by Furious’s status as a Vietnam War veteran). But in his strangely incoherent vision, there is little mention of the state apparatus—-it is neither repressive nor supportive; it is, in fact, barely there at all. Boyz pretty much treats the state as if it doesn’t exist; it appears mostly in the form of a self-hating Black cop who calls other Black people “nigger” and tells Furious he should have shot an intruder and kept more “garbage” off the streets.

It would be foolish to argue that Singleton’s apparent political naiveté is a result of his youth, since many dedicated Black Panther Party members his age or younger had well-formed political ideologies;some had already died for them. Singleton’s 1970s counterpart, the young filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, embraced Marxist rhetoric to support his Black Power ideology: “Black films should deal with images of our position in the superstructure. They should all work toward the decolonization of Black minds and the reclaiming of Black spirit” (qtd. in Lyne, 2000, p. 43). Twenty years later, in the absence of a viable Black counterpublic, it seems likely that Singleton ignores the state because his personal experience and the contemporary popular culture representations upon which he drew to write and direct Boyz simply didn’t provide him with the tools for state-based political analysis. Instead, what was available to him were the usual pop culture representations of Black communities, and the rhetoric of the Black Muslims—-a well-publicized nationalist group with a focus on economic independence.

Singleton has doubtless matured in the decade since Boyz hit the big screen, but his fascination with a depoliticized version of Black street culture continued with his 2000 remake of the classic blaxploitation film Shaft. “I wanted to grow up and be that guy,” said Singleton in an interview in the Manchester Guardian. “I wanted to dress cool, and get all the ladies. It was always like one day I would make a Shaft movie” (Leigh, 2000, p. 2, 14). Singleton’s remake made good use of Samuel Jackson’s incredible projection of cool but completely dropped the original Shaft’s explicitly political subplot. That the industry rewards Singleton (and other Black filmmakers) for avoiding explicitly ideological films is clear given the box-office failure of his critically acclaimed Rosewood, a historical fiction based on the historical massacre of a Black community by a mob in Florida in the 1920s.8

Boyz opened the door for a series of Black films featuring soldiers and Vietnam veterans, culminating in the flood year of 1995, which saw the release of Preston A. Whitmore II’s Vietnam War film Walking Dead; Mario Van Peebles’s Panther (focusing on Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, and the fictional character “Judge”); and the Hughes brothers’ over-the-top ghetto/’Nam/Black liberation extravaganza, Dead Presidents.

The bumper crop of 1995 all reflect a similar incoherence and were all directed by very young Black men. (Youth in Black directors seems to be a quality that producers now prize.) Each of these films features soldier or Vietnam veteran antiheroes who benefit from the general post–Vietnam War Memorial wall and welcome-home-parade recuperation of the image of the Vietnam veteran in white popular culture while pro- moting a vision of Black liberation in uneasy tandem with the dream of economic self-sufficiency. Film critic Cynthia Fuchs notes:
The question of legitimacy—how it is assigned and by whom, how it shapes notions of honor, loyalty and betrayal, and specifically, how it is shaped by race and racism in the United States-—is at the center of Whitmore’s film, which tracks the increasingly horrific experiences of a mostly Black Marine unit in South Vietnam in 1971. The question also informs Panther, written by Melvin Van Peebles and directed by Mario Van Peebles, a fictionalized account of the birth of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, 1968–1969. (1996, p. 108)
Walking Dead is Whitmore’s attempt to pay tribute to Black Ameri- can soldiers who fought in Vietnam. It is constructed on the model of the white-produced Vietnam War films that came before (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Apocalypse Now, etc.) and utilizes the familiar device of flashbacks (complete with Motown soundtrack) to establish the history of each of the film’s five main characters. Like most other Vietnam War films, it focuses on relationships between soldiers in an environment strangely bereft of connection to the world outside the war. This particular platoon is sent out on a mission with the ostensible purpose of rescuing American POWs.

Dale Dye, Marine veteran and consultant for many of the most well-known Vietnam War films, was hired by Whitmore to ensure the “authenticity” of Walking Dead, and concern with visual realism replaces, in Whitmore’s film as in others, any attention to the ideological basis of the war. (Not that Dye was doing his job. It seems unbelievable that an infantry platoon would be sent on such a rescue mission as late as 1972, at the height of Nixon’s Vietnamization program, a time when U.S. infantry in South Vietnam was growing scarcer and scarcer.) Even the fine actors Joe Morton and Eddie Griffin are unable to lift this film out of the predictable Vietnam War film format. For a film about the experiences of Black soldiers in the Vietnam War, it is sadly lacking in historical content or analysis.

Unable to confront such issues as the racist nature of Robert McNa- mara’s “Project 100,000” (a program that changed the standards for admission into the military and cast a wider net for Black and other minority soldiers), the conflict between Black and white soldiers in base camps, the inordinate number of Black soldiers sentenced to U.S. mili- tary prisons in Vietnam, sharply increasing drug use among soldiers, the politicization of Black soldiers and veterans, or the identification of Black soldiers with the Vietnamese, Whitmore settles for a string of clichés derived from existing white popular culture sources. Actor Joe Morton’s comment on the film sums up its disconnection from history: “It’s seldom that you see a movie with Blacks where we aren’t killing each other” (“The Walking Dead,” 1995, p. 36). The Black Panthers and other Black liberationists of the 1960s and 1970s could and did see that Blacks killing Vietnamese was equivalent to Blacks killing each other. Black identification with oppressed Third World peoples was clear and based on an anti-imperialist, racially egalitarian, socialist ideology summed up in the slogan: “No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger.” Akmed Lorence would have thought Morton desperately in need of some political education.

The twins Allen and Albert Hughes’s film Dead Presidents received far more favorable reviews than Whitmore’s Walking Dead. The twenty-three-year-old team had burst onto the scene in 1993 with Menace II Society, a boys-go-bad film that rode in on the wave of enthusiasm in- spired by nineteen-year-old Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood. The Hughes brothers do a better job than Whitmore when it comes to dealing with the prewar adventures of protagonist Anthony Curtis (Lorenz Tate) but certainly succumb to the same clichéd representations of war that ruin Walking Dead. Riddled with absurdities (a four-year tour in Vietnam? in the bush?) and over-the-top insanity worthy of Gus Hasford, Michael Herr, or Stanley Kubrick (a Black soldier who carries around the head of a dead Vietnamese, a skinned-soldier staked out with his severed penis in his mouth) the central section of the film fails to work as a coherent bridge between Curtis’s prewar and postwar life. Despite Albert Hughes’s assertion that the Black Bildungsroman of the Vietnam War had never been filmed before (“Hughes Brothers’,” 1995, p. 60), Dead Presidents’ representation of the Black Vietnam “experience” is neither particularly Black nor particularly original.

The Hughes brothers loosely based part of the story on the most sen- sational (and overused) autobiography in Wallace Terry’s oral history anthology Bloods. Their documentary research on the war does not appear to include much more than this single book (which they call a book of “short stories” in their interview), and perhaps the documentary film that was made based on the book.9 Though Terry’s book was written at least in part to counter normative White Vietnam War narratives, in Dead Presidents Terry’s influence is overshadowed by that of Michael Herr, the godfather of Vietnam War journalism. Herr’s gonzo journalism best-seller Dispatches has been quoted or referenced in almost every blockbuster Vietnam War film from Apocalypse Now on. The attempt to wed the perspectives of the two journalists results in a Frankenstein’s monster of a film, lurching along and scaring everybody for all the wrong reasons. The film draws heavily on the same texts and movies that established the Vietnam War genre: Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full-Metal Jacket.

In an interview in Film Scouts, Albert Hughes is asked where the Vietnam War scenes in Dead Presidents were filmed. He laughs and says “Disneyworld! Actually two miles away from Orlando, with some backdrop stills shot in Thailand” (Béhar, 1995). The casual embrace of simulation, and the connection between Vietnam during wartime and the self-contained fantasy environment of Disneyworld are disturbing, especially when one considers that the phrase “soldiers in-country” used to refer to Vietnam was “The Brown Disneyland.” I have written before about how popular culture shapes both experience and memory for soldiers in the Vietnam War. Young filmmakers such as the Hughes Brothers are bereft of any firsthand experience and, without a serious effort to do scholarly research, are left only with popular culture images and the war stories of now middle-aged and older veterans. Lorenz Tate’s description of the “reality” on which the film was based shows this pop culture influence and is riddled with myths about the Vietnam War:
There was more psychological warfare because Vietnam vets were so used to seeing different violent acts. They got used to it. That kind of messes with a person. And I’m glad I got a chance to speak with a lot of Vietnam vets and just kind of pick their brains to see where they were mentally. There are so many stories Vietnam vets can tell you. I think the Hughes brothers touched upon several in one story. (“Hughes Brothers’,” 1995, p. 60)
Tate expresses an equally clichéd view of the Vietnam War veteran, based entirely on post-1982 popular culture representations:
Coming home was the problem,” he said. “When he’s walking around with all these medals on him, nobody really cared. He put his life on the line for millions of Americans and when he gets back, people spit on his face. They didn’t care. He couldn’t find jobs. He couldn’t provide for his family. (“Hughes Brothers’,” 1995, p. 60)
This could be a description of most movies about white veterans, from First Blood to Born on the 4th of July. There’s nothing specifically “Black” about it. When the Hughes brothers revised the Vietnam War story to include Black soldiers and veterans, they failed to reject white clichés. It was white veterans, not Black veterans, who were shocked at being ignored and unemployed when they came home. In contrast, many Black veterans had gone to fight in Vietnam because they couldn’t get into college or get a job in the first place.

Most of the war stories on the set probably were told by writer Michael Henry Brown, whom the Hughes brothers had hired because he was “an ex-Marine, he knew the book.” Brown’s memory of his own experience would have been influenced by both popular culture and by his status of employee. Says Allen Hughes, “We told him what scenes we wanted, he just went and wrote them” (Béhar, 1995). Brown may have been reluctant to contradict the young directors, or their take on the war may have matched his own internal revisions. In the “back and forth” between Brown and the Hughes brothers, it is likely that many myths and apocryphal tales were shared. The problem with relying on the testimony of veterans twenty years after a war experience is that the memory of veterans grows more and more like popular culture representation of the war as time goes on. None of those vets apparently told Tate the old joke about war stories:
Q: What’s the difference between a fairy tale and a war story?

A: A fairy tale opens with “once upon a time...” and a war story begins with “this is no shit.”10
Black veterans, unlike white veterans, came home from a war to a war at home and many of them responded like young Black activist Akmed Lorence and joined the struggle for Civil Rights and human dignity being waged by the Panthers and others. By embracing a white popular culture version of the “real” war (complete with vets being spat upon by antiwar activists)11 and failing to accurately represent the responses of Black soldiers and veterans of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Hughes brothers are left with no coherent explanation for Anthony Curtis’s decision to plan and carry out an armed robbery with a group of friends and strangers, some of whose attire and sloganeering is ostensibly “political” but whose agenda is totally obscure and unfathomable. Curtis’s own motives seem bourgeois and overtly apolitical—-he’s attracted to robbery not because of his political convictions but because he is ashamed that he cannot support his family. Sentenced to life in prison after the spectacular failure of the group’s plan, Curtis can stand for nothing but a general sense that Black people are oppressed by white institutions. He can represent nothing greater or more particular because the movie takes no ideological stance and offers no cogent analysis of U.S. racism. As Desson Howe notes, the film manages to be “intense (and very bloody), heartfelt and superficial all at the same time” (1995, C1).

Howe also compares Anthony Curtis of Dead Presidents to Kadeem Hardison in Panther, a character who “goes from saluting Uncle Sam to infiltrating the Panthers to, finally, joining the cause—all in one heavy-handed character arc” (1995, C1). Howe reviewed Panther for the Washington Post and describes it in these terms:
Sorting fact from fiction is a thorny thing—unless you’re something of a social historian. Clearly, the movie’s about a significant period in American history, and filmmaker Mario Van Peebles (working with his father and scriptwriter Melvin) is more emotional than dispassionately dogged about the facts. “Panther” is a fictionalized account—an interpretation—of the stormy period (between 1966 and 1970) when the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense used weapons, retaliatory belligerency and empowerment training for their troops and people to mobilize against perpetual police harass- ment. (1995, C1)
Panther stars Vietnam War movie veteran Courtney B. Vance as Bobby Seale and Marcus Chong as Huey Newton. These “real life” figures are joined by the fictional character Judge, played by Kadeem Hardison. Judge is a Vietnam War veteran whose initially patriotic and conciliatory stance is shifted by exposure to radicals Newton and Seale. Newton anticipates that the police will approach Judge and ask him to spy on the Panthers, and he encourages Judge to agree, setting him up as a double agent. Judge agrees and winds up in an increasingly dangerous position. Reviews of Panther are rife with references to Oliver Stone’s technique of merging documentary footage with fictional scenes, and Van Peebles certainly does seem to embrace this strategy to make his portrait of the Panthers more “real.” The plot, however, is drawn more closely from his father’s novel (Melvin Van Peebles also wrote the Panther screenplay) than from history itself.

Judge, a student on the GI Bill, is introduced to the Panthers on the UC Berkeley campus when he runs across a Black activist handing out copies of Mao’s writings in Sproul Plaza. A cautious skeptic, Judge is not drawn into the organization until he sees the Panthers engaged in work that supports the Black community in Oakland. And this is one of the great flaws of the film: a fictionalized J. Edgar Hoover is after the Panthers because he thinks they are communists. Judge would like to protect the Panthers because he knows they are not communists but selfless, freedom-loving heroes of the Black community. Thus, a false contradiction is created to make the plot sensible to contemporary Americans at the cost of obscuring the roots of the movement. The real Panthers were most certainly socialists-—many of them were avowed communists—-but far from seeing a contradiction between their politics and the work they did for the Black community, they felt that community activism could and should be rooted in a clear political ideology. To erase this history—-to portray the Panthers as larger-than-life heroes while stripping them of their politics-—is typical of Van Peebles, whose project of constructing a mythic, heroic past for African Americans has already been described. The introduction of a subplot in which the mafia and the FBI are blamed for supplying drugs to the Black community with deliberate genocidal intent resonates nicely with the plots of classic blaxploitation films12 (Fred Williamson’s Black Caesar series, for example) but draws attention away from the real importance of the Panther organization. Van Peebles’s preoccupation with male heroes also leads him to underplay the history and importance of women in the Panther Party. Elaine Brown and Angela Davis aren’t even given a nod in Panther—-absent in the film, they are sorely missed.

The film may have lacked a sound ideological basis, but that didn’t prevent it from being the center of ideological struggle:
A committee of Black entertainers and athletes, including Danny Glover, Spike Lee and Magic Johnson, took out ads in Daily Variety to support Van Peebles pere et fils: “We laud their efforts and their courage for making a movie that sends a message of strength, dignity and empowerment to the African American community—especially to our youth.” This was in response to an earlier ad, declaring Panther “a two-hour lie,” that was placed in Daily Variety by David Horowitz’s Center for the Study of Popular Culture, a neoconservative outfit in Los Angeles. Horowitz, a reformed leftie who worked for the Panthers in the ’70s, now believes that “the overwhelming impact of the Panthers was negative.” And he fears Panther will have a toxic effect: “I fully expect that there will be people who will die because of this film.” (Corliss, 1995, p. 20)
Horowitz’s dramatic rhetoric is indicative of how threatening conser- vatives (and many liberals) find the Panthers even when their ideology is stripped from their representation. But Horowitz’s fear is no longer rooted in ideology either—it is rooted in the equally reactionary and incoherent fear of Black men with guns. And that is what representation of the Panthers has become—-an argument between those who like to see Black men with guns, and those who do not.

In a capitalist state, every image becomes a product one can sell, and there is tremendous pressure to produce sellable images and equally tremendous pressure to reshape the context in which images are viewed so they do not represent ideas or historical facts that threaten the capitalist value system. Black filmmakers, however concerned they are with Black history and culture, are not immune from these pressures and are forced by the market to engage in competitive rather than supportive practices:
“In part, Mario and his father have done a very good job of showing our history,” says David Hilliard, former Panther chief of staff. “But the characterization of Bobby Seale being dominant over Huey Newton is certainly a reversal of history. Unfortunately, most of the people in the party leadership who could have helped are on my project.” Hilliard, you see, is working with Seale on their own film for Warner Bros. These days Panther adversaries don’t have shootouts, they have rival development deals with movie studios. (Corliss, 1995, p. 20)
Despite his complaints, Van Peebles did have a significant promotion budget and the help of a media giant, the Black Entertainment Television Network (BET). In May 1995, I spotted a half-page ad in YSB (the Magazine for Young Brothers and Sisters), which is published by BET. As a promotion for Mario Van Peeble’s film Panther, it advertised a contest in which the winner would receive a monetary award and “live the Panther dream.”

The campaign had distorted the “dream” into a promise of financial gain for the lucky winner, whereas once it had been a belief in a society where all citizens could be assured of justice and equality. Presented entirely without irony, the contest promo underlined the complete commercialization and appropriation of Panther history. The Panther revolutionary agenda has been revised and repackaged to the point where it could be used to promote the very capitalist structures the Panthers sought to destroy. Ideology had, finally and completely, been subsumed by image. The trajectory from George Jackson to Monster Cody passed the peak of its arc.


In February 1996, Sanyika Shakur was pulled over by police officers, who allege that they discovered a gram of marijuana in his car. In March, Shakur fled when parole officers entered his home to search it and to test him for drugs. He avoided the law for almost three months. When he was finally captured, the police found him signing autographs on the front porch of a house in South-Central Los Angeles. There were about ten people lined up waiting (Corwin, 1996, p. 1). At the time Shakur jumped parole, he was working on a movie script for Monster, which had by then sold more than one hundred thousand copies in ten languages (Mitchell & Hodari, 1996, p. 1). While on the lam, he kept in close touch with his agent and in daily touch with Antoine Fuqua, who had been hired by Propaganda films to document Shakur’s life (Oregonian, 1996, p. A30).

Sanyika Shakur gave an interview to journalist Susan Faludi in September 1999, a few days after being released from jail after serving a one-year sentence for a second parole violation. He explained to her, “I got all those ideas from watching movies and watching television. I was really just out there acting from what I saw on TV” (Faludi, 1999, p. 52).
And he wasn’t referring to Superfly or Shaft. “Growing up I didn’t see one blaxploitation movie. Not one.” His inspiration came from shows like Mission Impossible and Rat Patrol and films like The Godfather. “I would study the guys in those movies,” he recalled, “how they moved, how they stood, the way they dressed, that whole winning way of dress- ing. Their tactics became my tactics. I went from watching Rat Patrol to being it.” His prime model was Arthur Penn’s 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde. “I watched how in Bonnie and Clyde they’d walk in and say their whole names. They were getting their reps. I took that and applied it to my situation. It’s a thin line between criminality and celebrity. Someone has to be the star of the ’hood. Someone has to do the advertising for the ’hood.”(Faludi, 1999, p. 52)
Though Shakur doesn’t explicitly mention it, this essay demonstrates that he was also strongly influenced by the images in Vietnam War films and perhaps also television shows such as Tour of Duty and China Beach. The distance between George Jackson and Sanyika Shakur is the distance between the 1960s and the 1990s, between a strong Black counterpublic sphere and a weak one, between ideology and image, between the Black liberation fighter and the “ghetto star.” The revolution may not be televised, but we’re all waiting for the next spin-off.


1. This process is fully explicated in Kalí Tal (1995), Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma (New York: Cambridge University Press).

2. For a full analysis of COINTELPRO’s effect on the Black Panthers, see Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall (1988).

3. Produced by David Loeb Weiss. Transcribed by the author.

4. The notable exception is Stan Shaw’s remarkable character in The Boys in Company C. Directed by Sidney J. Furie (1978). Shaw plays Tyrone Washington, who displays both political savvy and street savvy.

5. As it turns out, Singleton’s Furious was quite right. See Gary Webb (1998), Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion (New York: Seven Stories Press) for a detailed description of government involvement in the importation of crack cocaine into U.S. ghettoes.

6. Transcribed by the author.

7. As noted before, this latter claim has been proven to be at least partially true. See Webb (note 2).

8. A critical comparison of Rosewood and Mario Van Peebles’s Posse simply begs to be written.

9. Although Bloods was welcomed by scholars because resources in the field of Black autobiography from the Vietnam War are slim, it has also been strongly critiqued because of Terry’s admission that he reordered, smoothed out, and rephrased his interviews to make them more readable.

10. Heard repeatedly from more infantrymen than I can count.

11. See Jerry Lembke’s book-length study (2000), The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam (New York: New York University Press).

12. This subplot is actually not at all far-fetched, as Gary Webb’s reportage for the San Jose Mercury certainly made apparent in the late 1990s (see note 2). However, it draws our focus from the Panthers and their history without adding relevance or clarity to the historical analysis.

Share Button