A ''shock treatment for white America'': That's how FBI informant William O'Neal described the Black Panthers, the paramilitary hipster vigilantes who emerged from Oakland, Calif., in 1966 brandishing guns, rage, and a message of revolutionary defiance. As an image of the '60s, the famous photograph of Panther cofounder Huey Newton seated in a big wicker chair, an upright rifle in one hand and a spear in the other, his face gazing with lordly impassivity from beneath a black beret, is as indelible as the nude hippies at Woodstock or Nixon flashing his V-for-victory sign. In a sense, the Panthers were all about image; they turned racial insurrection into a form of guerrilla street theater. If there's anything that Panther (Gramercy, R), Mario Van Peebles' hyperactive docudrama, gets right, it's the militant spectacle of young black men, armed, for the first time in their lives for the first time in American history with guns and the law, gazing with unblinking hatred into the eyes of their oppressors and saying, in essence, ''So, how do you like it?'' Van Peebles, the director of New Jack City and Posse, has an instinct for pulse-quickening flash that verges on the opportunistic. What his volatile showmanship can't conceal is Panther's historical glibness and its almost total lack of dramatic depth.
Working from a script by his filmmaker father, Melvin, Van Peebles assaults us with fierce, grabby scenes. Panther opens just at that point in the late '60s when many young blacks have grown impatient with Martin Luther King's philosophic strategy of nonviolence. The Panthers, by contrast, are the spiritual godchildren of Malcolm X: They want power now. The core of their manifesto is to put into action Malcolm's most galvanizing insight: that in a society that sanctions racial brutality, to take up arms against one's attackers isn't ''violent'' it's a bottom-line act of self-defense. Exploiting a California law that allows citizens to carry guns (and, in fact, requires that the weapons be displayed openly), Newton (Marcus Chong) and his fellow Panther cofounder, Bobby Seale (Courtney B. Vance), recruit an army of young men from around Oakland and set about monitoring the local cops. This makes for some riveting confrontations, especially when Newton, shotgun in hand, busts up an incident of police brutality by standing opposite members of the Oakland force, who stare openmouthed as the young Minister of Defense lets loose a stream of high-octane rhetoric, explaining that he's operating entirely within the law.
As the Panthers begin to grab headlines, they commandeer the attention of the FBI and its famously paranoid head, J. Edgar Hoover (Richard Dysart), who declares them America's number-one security threat and sets up an extensive campaign of surveillance and undercover infiltration to bring about their destruction. This is all well-established fact. For the events to have import, though, we need insight into the minds and souls of the Panthers themselves. And that's just what Panther doesn't provide. Instead, it turns them into stick-figure icons. Marcus Chong has Huey Newton's baby face and strangled, Malcolm-on-helium voice, but there are no layers to his anger. From the movie, you'd never guess that Newton was at various points in his life a murderous criminal, or that he fused Marxist rhetoric with a bring-down-the-system recklessness. Bobby Seale, who was a far more eloquent speaker than Newton, comes off as a well-meaning cipher. And though Anthony Griffith, in a goatee and shades, captures Eldridge Cleaver's surface magnetism, we get few hints of how the author of Soul on Ice used his sociopathic fury manipulatively, as a strategy to capitalize on liberal guilt.