Events depicted in the doc The Black Panthers feel oddly familiar. Credit: Firelight Films

The saga of Laquan McDonald—the video, the protests, the mayor’s apology—has stirred fierce and complicated emotions in Chicago. Thursday night’s your last chance to see a documentary that will stir them further.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which has been playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center for the past week, returns us to the late 1960s, a time before America elected a black president and before Chicago elected a black mayor, a time when our lives brimmed with racial poison.

We revisit the police raid on December 4, 1969, on the Panthers’ Chicago headquarters in which Fred Hampton, the charismatic local leader, was gunned down in his bed. We see Edward Hanrahan, the state’s attorney who ordered the raid, looking blandly into the camera and lying his head off about what happened and the resistance his men faced (which was none). 

And we are reminded of the disinformation program ordered by J. Edgar Hoover, then head of the FBI, to turn Black Panther leaders against each other and shatter the national organization. That program was successful. 

It helps to keep your seat for a minute or two after the movie ends and think about that black mayor and black president, and about the difference between a code of silence that conceals an assassination ordered from on high and one that merely covers up the casual death of a random black teenager who happened to act out in the wrong place at the wrong time before the wrong trigger-happy cop. 

And what about the difference between a state’s attorney who instigates an execution and a state’s attorney who merely twiddles her thumbs after one occurs? And let’s not forget that when the truth came out about the Black Panthers raid, it ruined Hanrahan’s political career.

Yes sir, when we stop to look for them, we’re surrounded by evidence that this city and this country have taken impressive strides.  

And yet the effect of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution on a viewer who moved to Chicago a few months after that ’69 raid is to have him staring at the blank screen and thinking, Not a goddamn thing has changed!