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Why revisiting the Black Panther revolution resonates today

February 16, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
A new documentary on Independent Lens traces the influence of the Black Panthers on U.S. politics and culture in the 1960s. Stanley Nelson, director of "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution," joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss the film and the activists' impact.

GWEN IFILL: The “Independent Lens” documentary “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” airs tonight on PBS stations. It traces the group’s origins and influence on U.S. politics and culture in the 1960s

MAN: Black Panthers were absolutely unique.

MAN: Police jump on you, beat you up. This is what we were going through on a daily basis.

MAN: Now we had voices that were not going to turn the other cheek.

MAN: Stop brutalizing our community, or we’re going to drive you pigs out.

MAN: We don’t hate those guys because of their color. We hate oppression.

MAN: We wanted the entire community to follow.

GWEN IFILL: Jeffrey Brown is back with his conversation with the film’s award-winning director, Stanley Nelson.

JEFFREY BROWN: Stanley Nelson, welcome to you.

STANLEY NELSON, Filmmaker, “The Black Panthers”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did this begin for you from a sense that the Black Panthers were misunderstood, not well-remembered, forgotten altogether? What’s the beginning?

STANLEY NELSON: I think it was that they were misunderstood.

I think that the Panthers are well-remembered, but I think that people don’t understand who the Panthers were and don’t understand how the Panthers were thought of back then in the ’60s. So, I thought that it was really ripe for a new telling.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, given the controversy back then to this day, right, and it’s such a lot of — there’s a lot of history to get your arms around. How did you — how much did you think you could tell?

STANLEY NELSON: You know, I think it started out as a three-hour project, and we realized that two hours was about the limit.

But, you know, we knew that we couldn’t tell every single thing, and we knew that we had to stop and start somewhere, so the film really begins with the beginning of the Panthers in 1966 and goes kind of through their height, their heyday, and ends in 1973.

JEFFREY BROWN: And misunderstood in the sense that — which part did you feel you most needed to — I don’t know if correct is the right word.

STANLEY NELSON: I think the Panthers are really interesting because they’re both demonized and they’re mythologized at the same time.

And I think that both groups get it wrong. And I think that, a lot of times, it’s oversimplified, they were bad or they were great. And there’s a lot of nuance to the Panthers’ story, and we wanted to really get that out in this film.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so you’re showing — you’re certainly showing the social programs that they were involved in, but at the same time, of course, it begins with guns, with young black men and women in the streets of Oakland.

STANLEY NELSON: Well, it began as a way of, as the Panthers would have put it, to kind of defend the community against the brutality of the police.

At that point, the Oakland Police Department was notoriously brutal. And the Panthers, there was a quirk in the law, an open-carry law in California that kind of nobody knew about it, but it said that you could carry a loaded weapon as long as you carried it out in the open.

So, the Panthers said, OK, well, we will police the police. We will follow the police and, as they put it, make sure that no brutality occurs when the police stop somebody.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, I have a — we have a short clip I want to show. This is a little — catching a little bit of the spirit of the times. Right? OK. Let’s take a look at that.


WOMAN: This brother here, myself, all of us were born with our hair like this, and we just wear it like this. The reason for it, you might say, is like a new awareness among black people that their own natural appearance, physical appearance, is beautiful. Black people are aware now. They’re proud of it. It’s pleasing to them. Isn’t it beautiful? All right.


WOMAN: You’re talking about people who were teenagers 17, 18, 19, 20. That’s the bulk of the Panthers are teenagers. So the fact that we were so young and the fact that this hadn’t happened before, I’m not certain that we recognized how startling it looked to other people.

JEFFREY BROWN: How startling it looked.

I mean, you cannot tell the story of the Black Panthers without reminding us of the feel of the time, right, through the music, through the pictures and all.

STANLEY NELSON: Yes, I think that that was really important to us making the film, is that you had to understand the times a little bit. We had to get you back there to understand the Panthers at all, or else it doesn’t make any sense.

And I think that one of the things that we were able to use was music, you know, the music of the times, the music where the songs are, “Am I Black Enough For You” or “All Power to the People.” You know, those — that was the music and that kind of sets a base, I think, for what comes later in the film.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, inevitably, you have to tell the storm that they cause, the opposition, the aggression, notably most of all from the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover.

STANLEY NELSON: Yes, I mean, I think that’s really important.

There was always this idea, you hear rumors about the FBI setting out to destroy the Panthers. But we were able to obtain FBI memos and we used J. Edgar Hoover’s own words where he says very clearly that — he tells his agents, do anything you can to destroy the Panthers. Just don’t let it get back that it’s the FBI doing it. These are memos that we use in the film.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, the personalities within the party, the leadership, right, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, clashing almost the get-go.

STANLEY NELSON: Yes, these were volatile personalities.

And I think we show that. I think the film is warts and all. It’s kind of a sober, I hope, assessment of the Black Panther Party, of these personalities that are clashing, but also the FBI is setting them against each other. They’re writing letters, you know, pretending to be Huey Newton writing to Eldridge, and writing letters that are supposedly Eldridge writing to Huey, and kind of spurring this conflict on.

JEFFREY BROWN: The times, there are some things about that, I look at and it feels very much set in your time.

And then, of course, there are other things, as you are watching the film, you can’t help but think not that much has changed. Right?


And I think that is what makes the film so relevant. The Panthers started because of police brutality. We’re dealing with that over and over again today. The Panthers have a 10-point program where they call for certain changes, you know, better education, better health care, those kind of things. You know, we’re still fighting for those in the African-American community.

So, I think there is this resonance, you know to, what’s happening today. And that’s what makes the story in some ways really important, you know, because it’s not — it doesn’t exist only in this historical bubble. It’s not this thing that you can say, oh, that was interesting back then. But it has real relevance to what’s happening today. And I think that’s what we wanted the film to talk about and to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask just you, finally, about yourself, thinking about this film in the context of all the films you have made. And I have seen many of them.

So, is it — do you see it as a kind of continuation of a mission that you’re on in filmmaking? And what is that mission?

STANLEY NELSON: Well, I’m not — hopefully, I’m not on a mission.

But, you know — so, I guess, sometimes, I am. I think there is this continuity. The film that we did right before this, “Freedom Summer,” you know, it ends in 1964 with Stokely Carmichael yelling, you know, “Black power, black power, black power.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, leading right to this next one.

STANLEY NELSON: And this film starts again almost with the same clip of Stokely yelling “Black power, black power, black power.”

So, I think, sometimes, people want to look at the Black Panthers and the Black Panther movement as kind of outside the civil rights movement. I think that it was part of the civil rights movement. And I think that whether you agree with them or not, I think that it’s time for a reassessment of the Panthers, and to look at them in a new light.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the film is “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.”

Stanley Nelson, thanks so much.

STANLEY NELSON: Thank you so much.