Picks and Pans Review: Panther

updated 05/22/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/22/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Kadeem Hardison, Marcus Chong

What are the obligations of a moviemaker dealing with a historical subject? Should fact be allowed to stick out its big, unshined shoe and trip up those values we vaguely define as "entertainment"? Are pop culture and narrative truth bound to be at each other's throats, if they do indeed possess throats?

Shut up, you.

Mario Van Peebles, working from a script by his father, Melvin, directed this docudrama about the controversial career of the Black Panthers, the revolutionary group that started in Oakland, Calif., in the '60s. The story, unwisely, takes two tacks. One involves a fictional character, a Vietnam vet (Hardison) who joins the Panthers and, at the request of leader Huey Newton (Chong), poses as a police informant. The other consists of largely flattering, two-dimensional portraits of the Panther power players, including Newton, Eldridge Cleaver (Anthony Griffith) and Bobby Seale (Courtney B. Vance).

Historical or not, this is a lot of material to cram into 2 hours. Ultimately the narrative stress is too great, and Panther breaks down. Its concluding minutes include a murdered French poodle, an exploding warehouse and, just before the credits roll, a solemn statement about the drug problem. (R)

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