The sniping began even before Panther hit theaters. A celebration of the early days of the Black Panther Party, the film has been accused of everything from romanticizing dangerous criminals to playing fast and loose with history. Caught in the middle of the storm is Mario Van Peebles, 38, director of the $9 million movie, and his laughing response to the attacks is simply, ''I'm taking the Fifth.''
No wonder. Since Panther opened May 3 in 800 theaters across the nation, it's drawn fire from both the left and the right. Bobby Seale, 58, who along with the late Huey Newton founded the militant Black Power group in Oakland, Calif., in 1966, angrily denounces the movie as ''a bootleg fiction 80 to 90 percent of what you see on the screen did not happen. I'm going to sue them for falsifying and invading my private character.'' On the opposite end of the political spectrum, David Horowitz, 56, a New Left radical-turned-right-wing crusader, took out an advertisement in Daily Variety damning the movie as a ''two-hour lie.'' ''This is like having the KKK be declared the Robin Hoods of the white ghetto,'' says Horowitz.
Fax machines have been turned into propaganda weapons. Horowitz sent the media seven pages of quotes culled from various Panther histories to substantiate his contention that ''the Panthers were cocaine-addicted gangsters who ... committed hundreds of felonies.'' Gramercy Pictures, the movie's distributor, fired off 31 pages of documentation, including declassified FBI documents, to bolster the film's argument that the FBI not only infiltrated the Panthers but may have made a clandestine deal with the Mafia to pump drugs into poor black neighborhoods in an effort to ''neutralize'' the Black Power movement. (The FBI has refused comment on the allegation.)
Thanks to the $47.6 million success of his first feature, 1991's urban drama New Jack City, Van Peebles has started to wield some power of his own. But that didn't mean Hollywood rushed to embrace the Panther movie, written by his father, director Melvin Van Peebles (Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song). At one pitch meeting, Mario recounts, it was suggested the movie would be more desirably ''mainstream'' if its story were told through the eyes of a white student radical, preferably one played by a Tom Cruise or a Brad Pitt. At another, it was suggested that since Jane Fonda had once supported the Panthers, it would be great if a role were written for her niece Bridget Fonda.
Instead, the Van Peebles chose to tell the story through the eyes of a fictional character, Judge (Kadeem Hardison), a Vietnam vet who becomes both witness and pawn in the battle between the Panthers and the FBI. ''The Panther movement preached power to the people,'' Mario Van Peebles explains. ''So we wanted to create an Everyman to be the hero. And by putting him between the Panthers and the FBI, it afforded us an overview that even the Panthers didn't have at the time.''
Mixing fact and fiction, though, proved volatile. ''The movie's got me saying stuff I never said,'' protests Seale, who claims that he refused Melvin Van Peebles' invitation to serve as a consultant on the film. ''It's got s--- so backwards it's a crying shame.'' For example, the movie depicts a community-led march to demand a traffic light on a dangerous Oakland corner as a seminal event in the creation of the Panthers. ''There was never any demonstration or protest behind that signal light,'' contends Seale, who now serves as a community liaison to the African American Studies department at Temple University in Philadelphia. However, in his 1970 memoir, Seize the Time, which he has sold to Warner Bros. as the basis for another Panther film, Seale does write that the threat of a Panther demonstration caused a traffic light to be installed.