March 17, 2013

The Black Panther (1977)

Not a movie about Marvel's African superhero, and not a biographical picture of the Black Panther movement in the USA (that would be 1995's rather good Panther). This is The Black Panther, a deeply disturbing crime drama based on a true story, roundly demonised in its abortive cinema release, and only now being re-evaluated as one of the best British films of the mid-1970s.

Donald Neilson was a profoundly disturbed individual. An ex-army soldier, he undertook several failed burglaries of English post offices between 1971 and 1974 that resulted in his murdering three people. Finally he masterminded a bungled kidnapping for ransom of teenage heiress Lesley Whittle. A series of mistakes resulted in Neilson never getting his ransom, and Whittle died - either by misadventure or murder, it has never been fully made clear. While he was at large, the British media referred to him as "the Black Panther". After his arrest in December 1975, Neilson was sentenced to five consecutive life sentences.

The Black Panther was widely derided on its release in 1977, less than three years after Whittle's death. It was condemned as a cheap and tacky cash-in, profiting from a ghoulish true story in the most cynical of ways. On the BBC's Tonight, host Sue Lawley famously described the film as 'sick'. Thankfully the film has received a remastered release on DVD and Blu-ray, allowing viewers more than three decades later to experience this vastly underrated and under-seen film from British film history.

First and foremost it's important to acknowledge that The Black Panther is the exact opposite of what its critic condemned it as. It is not tacky or sensationalistic. Instead it is a carefully observed, scrupulously researched and highly accurate depiction of very disturbing events. Critically, the film does not attempt to get inside Neilson's head. It depicts his actions, and their disastrous effects, but at no point does it offer an explanation as to why he does what he does. In many regards it reminded me of David Fincher's brilliant drama Zodiac, which dealt with similar problems in how to bring such awful real-life events to the screen - and which came to very much the same creative conclusions.

Donald Sumpter gives a fantastic performance as Neilson, portraying him as simultaneously obsessively prepared and hopelessly inept. We see him put a remarkable amount of effort until his criminal enterprises, and subsequently watch all of his plans go awry as something cocks up, Neilson panics, and someone generally gets shot.

This is in many regards a difficult film. Its third act is devoted to a kidnapping of an innocent young woman. We know that she is not going to make it out alive, and that dreadful inevitability gives the film a tragic edge that lies above the confrontational violence, and the sheer criminal ineptitude that borders on black comedy.

I hope the DVD release (via the British Film Institute) gives The Black Panther a broader audience that it has received so far. It is an excellent, provocative film, and did not deserve the public lambasting and critical scorn it received at the time.

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