Filmmaker Stanley Nelson, who won an Emmy for the PBS documentary The Murder of Emmett Till, three Emmys for Freedom Riders, and made an acclaimed film about Marcus Garvey, has for years aimed his probing but fair-minded lens on civil rights history. Along the way he realized he hadn’t really seen a film that covered the full and fascinating complexities of the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary black nationalist and socialist organization that operated from the late ’60s into the early ’80s. In his new film, Nelson gives voice to the Panthers who were there to tell their often misrepresented story.

“Like any good work of history,” writes A.O. Scott in The New York Times, “The Black Panthers sticks close to the facts, plotting complex events into a packed, fast-moving timeline and leaving to the viewers the work of drawing lessons and analogies for our own time.”

The vibrant chronicle The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which was named by the NY Times as one of the top 15 films of 2015 and won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Documentary, premieres on Independent Lens on PBS Tuesday, February 16 at 9 pm [check local listings].

Filmmaker Stanley Nelson, director of Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution
Stanley Nelson

When did you first become aware of the Black Panthers? And in making the film did you yourself have some misperceptions about them — or what did you learn that surprised you?

I was 15 when the Panthers began in 1966. As a 15-year-old teenager living in New York it could be said that I was part of their target audience. I was instantly fascinated by them. And I was surprised at how young the majority of the Panthers were, and that they quickly became over 50 percent women.

And why did you then want to make a film about their story? How did you approach the telling of that story?

Seven years ago, I set out to tell the story of the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party, a little known history that had never been told in its entirety. There is so much we think we know about the Party, but I wanted to go beyond the oversimplified narrative of the Panthers as prone to violence and consumed with anger, and explore why so many people joined, what they accomplished, and why it fell apart.

I felt that the Panther story would make a film that was very relevant to today. I also thought that those times were important and needed to be put on the screen. Plus I felt there were great storytellers, great footage, great music that could be used.

What were some of the main challenges in making this film? There’s a lot of research and archival and so on — that must have made it tricky and time-consuming.

The archival footage and still pictures are very time-consuming to gather (and ultimately very expensive) but because I have made other historical documentaries it is something I know how to do and am comfortable doing. The biggest challenge was to make the film without a narrator. But I think it allows the audience to have a more direct connection to the film.

What are some other films and filmmakers that were influential on you?

I saw The Murder of Fred Hampton when I was about 20 years old and it had a profound effect on me, I think because it was a political film that had its own point-of-view. Up until that point I didn’t think this was allowed under the “rules” of documentary filmmaking.

What was the importance/influence of music on the Black Panther movement and how did it shape the film’s score?

I think the music of the time was very important, it was the soundtrack of people’s lives. In the film I wanted to use the music to take people back there. I also wanted to let people hear the music of the day, much of which was very political. [Editor’s note: listen to our Black Panthers mixtape.]

You didn’t set out to make a film that was about this, but of course the film has become even more relevant lately with all the incidents involving police and African American people in places like Ferguson, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. In your research for Black Panthers and just knowing about all these tragedies today what do you think this newer movement can learn from the older movement?

I hope that the story of the Panthers can be an inspiration to the movements of today. The story of the Panthers is the story of a group who made mistakes but at the heart were trying to make positive change. I also think it can be a cautionary tale, because in many ways the Panthers were not ready for the FBI’s infiltration and let themselves be destroyed from within. There also was too much dependence on its leaders which hurt the Panthers in the long run.

So what conversations would you like people to be inspired to have after watching The Black Panthers?

I hope that the film will start discussions on each individual’s role in making change in our society.

Can you tell us about any projects you’re working on next?

The Black Panthers is actually part of a three-part series for Independent Lens entitled “America Revisited.” The second film is the history of historic Black colleges and universities, titled Tell Them We Are Rising, that is currently in production and will finish this fall. The third film is a look at the Atlantic slave trade.

More from Stanley Nelson via PBS Newshour.