A Panther in Africa started with the questions: What happened to the radicals from the 1960s? What happened to the ideals of that era? In 1998, traveling through East Africa, I met Pete O'Neal, a former Black Panther living in exile in Tanzania for over 30 years, and found someone who embodied the answers to these questions. I was intrigued that Pete appeared to be living in a vacuum — the only America Pete knows is the America of the 1960s — and that his exile had preserved and refined values that other 1960s radicals had left behind.
I made this film in large part because I thought Pete's life revealed a lot about America both past and present. But it was Pete the character who drew me to the subject. He's led an amazing life, and making the film seemed like a good excuse to get to know him better. As a man of extremes, Pete is on the one hand, a humorous, genial man, knowledgeable about all sorts of things — from books to film, music to sports — and people genuinely like him. On the other hand, he's a very private person who likes to be left alone, likes to do things his way, and gets depressed at times. Above all, Pete's a committed man. He's stuck by ideals and a commitment to service for nearly 40 years. That sense of commitment drew me to the subject as well.
I see A Panther in Africa as a companion piece to my previous film, My American Girls about one Dominican family's immigrant experiences in Brooklyn. Like Sandra Ortiz, the mother of the Ortiz family, Pete O'Neal is a man living between two worlds, navigating life in an adopted country. Around the same time Sandra chose to emigrate to the United States to make a better life for herself and her family, Pete was forced to flee to Tanzania because of his radical beliefs. Both Sandra and Pete feel the pull of their native lands and struggle with their transnational identities. They also gain a great deal of strength from their "between-two-worlds" status. This tension forms the essence of the immigrant story, which is the fabric of this nation and defines who we are as Americans. Through Pete, I saw the opportunity to tell the immigrant story in reverse.
It's difficult to summarize the effect that a three-year project has on you since those years of filmmaking are intertwined with everyday life, and so the changes are hard to quantify. But a couple concrete things have changed: I perform more community service, and I give more of the little money I have to charities as a result of working on this film. Witnessing first-hand Pete and his wife Charlotte's generosity, their willingness to open their life and home to complete strangers, and to share their possessions was inspiring. And I hope other people, through this film, see the value and reward of performing community service.
The film has also given me a renewed appreciation for political activism and dissent. As Black Panthers, Pete and Charlotte had the courage to risk jail time as well as life and limb to stand up for what they believed in. Whatever you think of the Panthers, you have to acknowledge that some of their major accomplishments — raising awareness of significant social issues, changing the way many African-Americans viewed themselves — were achieved by taking great risk. It's made me realize that there are things worth fighting for.
— Aaron Matthews