POV: How would you describe A Panther in Africa?
Matthews: A Panther in Africa explores the legacy of the 1960s through the eyes of Pete O’Neal, a former Black Panther and American exile living in Tanzania for over thirty years.
POV: How did you find Pete?
I was traveling in East Africa and a woman who I worked with at the time whose dad had been a Panther said, “If you’re in that neck of the woods, you have to visit this guy, Pete O’Neal. He has a great bed and breakfast.” So I met him, and, really within an hour of meeting him I thought, I’m going to do a film about this guy.
POV: This isn’t a bed and breakfast…
Matthews: It’s not. It’s an amazing and massive community center. And at times, it’s like a ’60s-style commune as well. What’s initially striking about his compound is that it’s covered in murals. Pete’s wife, Charlotte, is an artist and she’s done a lot of the mural work. There are pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr., John Brown and Malcolm X. It gives the whole place this kind of ’60s sense. And that’s one of the interesting things about Pete that drew me to film him — his predicament as this man who really is living in a vacuum. The only America he [and Charlotte] know is the America of the 1960s. And you get that sense immediately ,from the moment they greet you and throughout your stay there.
There’s a lot of activity and an incredible amount of diversity at Pete’s place. You have people from Europe on honeymoon there. You have inner-city kids from the United States. You have local Tanzanians who are participating in computer programs, English classes and HIV-AIDS awareness programs. So there’s just an incredible amount of activity. It’s one of the things that I admired then and continue to admire about Pete. He’s someone who’s really engaged with life.
One of the great ironies of Pete’s situation in Tanzania is that despite his exile from America, he still serves America. He’s the coordinator of the study abroad program for a number of US universities. He runs an international exchange program, in which he sends Tanzanian youth to the United States to further their education and brings inner-city kids from the United States to Tanzania for cultural enrichment programs. If you’re a college kid and you’re going to East Africa for your study abroad program, chances are you’re going to hang out with Pete O’Neal, this criminal fugitive from the United States.
One of the crucial segments of the film features Derek and Marty, two young men from Kansas City, Missouri, Pete’s hometown. They journey to Tanzania and their arrival, along with the arrival of [Pete’s] family and friends, highlights a number of important issues for Pete and forces him to reexamine his identity and status as someone living between two worlds and two times.
POV: How did Pete respond to the idea of making a film about him and his work?
Matthews: When I first approached Pete in 1998, he was very receptive to the idea. We had connected on a number of levels. On paper we have absolutely nothing in common. We’re from different generations. We have completely different backgrounds. But one of Pete’s gifts is his ability to connect with a lot of people. He can speak on any number of subjects from music to sports to movies to cooking. We ended up having a lot in common, from our taste in music to our love of documentary film and Kansas City barbecue. And so Pete was very receptive to the idea of this film from the beginning. We kept in contact for three years on email, talking about the project. We spent a lot of time hashing out the idea for the film.
POV: What interested you personally about Pete’s story?
Matthews: When I met Pete in December of 1998, I had just committed to the idea of doing my previous film, “My American Girls,” and I didn’t realize until halfway through it that “A Panther in Africa” really is a companion piece to My American Girls, which is about one Dominican family’s immigrant experiences in Brooklyn. Around the same time that Sandra Ortiz, the mother in My American Girls was emigrating to the United States, merging old world Dominican values with the American work ethic, Pete was fleeing the United States because of his radical beliefs, importing ’60s American values, and merging them with African notions of the extended family. Both Sandra and Pete struggle with their trans-national identities, living between two worlds, but they also both gain a great deal of strength from their situation. I think the stories of Sandra and Pete reveal the richness and complexity of being a modern-day American. And so what you have here with Pete is the immigrant story in reverse.
POV: And what about the Panthers? Was that a factor?
Matthews: Yeah, the other reason I was drawn to this was I’ve had a longstanding interest in the 1960s. My parents were very active in the community. My father was and still is an activist. And I think that, while growing up in the 1980s, I always wondered how the 1960s became the 1980s, which was this period notable for being devoid of a lot of political content. So I’ve always been interested in the 1960s and I saw an opportunity through Pete to tell a really complex and interesting story about America past and present.
POV: What does Pete’s story say about that history?
Matthews: I think that it is a story of transformation and change. The arc of Pete’s life is really kind of incredible. He went from street hustler and pimp to Black Panther to community organizer. And I’d hope in some small way that Pete’s life is a motivation and an inspiration for people because he’s now in the third act of his life — and he’s leading an incredibly productive life. This is the age when a lot of people are considering retirement. And here’s this guy who’s opened up his home to the international community — not just local Tanzanians, the hundreds of people who he feeds and serves and gives water to in Tanzania, but to the international community. Whatever you feel about Pete, Pete’s character, about the Black Panthers, about the Black Power movement, about the 1960s, I hope that you can look at this man and say, he’s led an incredibly productive, and in many ways admirable, life.
POV: How did you establish trust with Pete?
Matthews: When I first met Pete I was very torn because I hadn’t started My American Girls. yet but I really wanted to do this film. I think it was fortunate that I did My American Girls [first] and was able to build trust with Pete over email. Thank God for email. And also I think what really sealed the deal for us was when I finished My American Girls. I sent him and Charlotte a copy and they loved it. Charlotte said it was her favorite film. Once I sent him that, Pete sayid, “That’s when we really decided that we want you to tell this story.”
All along, I was sending them little pieces, five minutes, ten minutes, 25 minutes, just to show him where I was going [with “A Panther in Africa”]. The last four months I went into hiding and editing solitude, and I didn’t show him anything, because I wanted to show him the final rough cut. And once he saw the rough cut, he loved it. He left a voicemail message for me that I will cherish forever. He admitted that the last two months had been hell for him, that he was really sweating bullets and saying to himself, “This kid has 225 hours of footage and we talked about the idea that basically he could do anything.” You know, you can manipulate a story any way you want. He was very aware of that and he said he was nervous about it, really nervous about the idea that he was letting me tell his story. But it all worked out well.
POV: How did you decide to incorporate the archival footage?
Matthews: I wanted the archival footage in this film to animate his present day life. And I felt strongly that [the film] should be a story about this pivotal year in Pete’s life. I didn’t want it to be solely about the 1960s and about the Black Panthers. I wanted the ’60s, the Black Power movement, and the Black Panthers to be a window to Pete and his present-day life.
POV: What was the most surprising thing in making the film?
Matthews: One of the most surprising things was witnessing Pete’s shift in attitude regarding his legal case. Here you have this man who’s had this longstanding battle with America. And in many ways the legal case was the fight that defined who he was. And I think by the end of the film you see Pete reaching a monumental decision about his identity and his homeland and where he belongs — and he basically gives up the fight that defined who he was. He decides to live squarely in the present. And I think that it speaks volumes about his story and about his connection to his native land, America.
POV: How has the film changed you?
If I were to think of concrete ways the film has changed my life, I’d say I perform more community service now. I give away more of the very little money that I have. It’s made me more aware of the importance of community service. And I really think that’s one of the most important functions we can serve as human beings. The rewards are great. And I think in Pete and Charlotte you see two people who have basically opened their home to strangers in the name of community service. I just found that inspirational.
POV: What do you hope for audiences to come away with after watching the film?
Matthews: A Panther in Africa is a particularly American story. And Pete is a character that only America can produce. And I think it will resonate with a number of Americans because Pete’s story really is the immigrant story in reverse. And I think a lot of people will be able to relate to that whole situation and also his status as someone living between two worlds, which is something that a lot of Americans deal with. It’s what makes our country distinct and special.
I also think that the film gives a fresh perspective on the 1960s. You can’t pigeonhole Pete. You can’t label him and put him in a box. I hope that the film offers a venue through which you can look at the 1960s, that turbulent era, in a different way.
POV: What do you understand about Pete’s decision to escape?
Matthews: Pete was arrested for transporting a gun across state lines. A police officer told him that the only way he was going to get out of prison is in a box. Pete said, “You know what, I think I should leave the country.”
The interesting thing about Pete’s situation is that he says he transported hundreds of guns across state lines. If you know anything about the geography of Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas, they’re like eight miles apart. Pete was arrested on a two week-old law that prohibited trafficking arms between states. And it was a trumped-up charge to get him. He claims that he trafficked hundreds of arms across state lines, but he never transported that gun across state lines. It was not his gun.
This was something that the authorities were doing at the time to incarcerate Black Panthers and to shut down the movement. I think it was in 1968 [that] J. Edgar Hoover said that the Black Panther Party represented the greatest threat to American security. By the early 1970s, the Black Panthers were, by some statistics, 50 percent FBI informants. And Pete was not going to own up to something he didn’t do. There’s been talk about a presidential pardon — or there was under our previous president — and Pete said he wouldn’t accept that because this was emblematic of what the government was doing to destroy the [Black Panther] movement. And he doesn’t regret anything.
Pete says that what he’s engaged in now through his community service programs is basically an extension of the Black Panther Party, but without guns. He talks about how everyone’s image of the Black Panther Party is men with berets and black leather jackets and machine guns. And he says that’s true, but that they were much more than that. And you know there is just no denying that the Black Panthers raised consciousness. They raised awareness of significant issues. A lot of their community service programs, like their breakfast program for school children, were eventually adopted by state and government agencies.
I think Pete would say that his attitude has changed but that’s he’s still a revolutionary. And that part of that posturing, the guns, and the whole dress and demeanor of the Black Panther Party was to raise awareness of key issues and get attention. And I think they became memorable symbols of the Black Power movement for that reason. Pete would say that he doesn’t regret his posturing and the way he responded in that ABC interview. He felt that it was a necessity at that time and that things are different now, both in his life and in the world. Those kinds of language and behavior aren’t necessary.
And I don’t think he regrets it at all. He recognizes that was a different time and a different part of his life. The whole machismo posturing was something that may have attracted him initially [to] the Panthers. The [impression] that they were not going to turn the other cheek and that they were going to fight for what they believed in. And you have to admit that a lot of what the Panthers fought for, rights and respect for black people, they did achieve. And I think Pete’s proud of that.
POV: What advice would you give a first-time filmmaker?
Matthews: I would say it’s important to get as much life experience under your belt as possible before you pick up a camera. Meet new people and read good books and travel widely, if you can. Be open to new experiences and read and watch good movies. Because that informs the way you’ll tell a story.
I started out wanting to be a writer and I couldn’t deal with the solitude. I realized that through documentary film I could do a lot of what I was doing with writing but have it be very interactive. Filmmaking is a collaborative process from start to finish and even during the editing process, which can be very solitary, your characters are speaking to you. I’m just very attracted to the idea of being able to tell a story using images and voiceover, sound and music. Film allows you to do that, to tell a very layered story. And documentary film gives you the excuse to meet new people and travel to places where you otherwise wouldn’t have gone.