In October of 1966, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton formed the Black Panther Party for the purpose of combating
police violence in their Oakland neighborhood. Just in time for the organization’s fiftieth anniversary, the story of the Black Panthers is told once and for all in Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.”I’m interested in movements, not from the top down but the people who join and sustain movements,” says Nelson. “I really wanted the film to be about the rank and file members who are normally not talked to.” Though hailing from the East, Nelson was exposed to his local Panther chapter as a teen; he considered joining for about a minute, but opted to pick up a camera instead of a gun. Pursuing freedom narratives throughout his career as a documentarian, it was only natural that over time, as an African American observing Black lives, the story of the Panthers was a natural for his historic oeuvre, though he could not have predicted the timelessness of the story and the never ending cycle of police brutality in communities of color, combined with young people’s need to invent new ways to resist.
“In the last year and a half, when we were close to locking down the film, Ferguson happened,” explains Nelson. Of course he knew police brutality, and the need for better schools and housing were still relevant (“It’s why I wanted to do the film seven years ago,” he says) so the fact matters became more urgent was simply history taking its course.
“Because of recent circumstances, it’s opened a door to a conversation where people don’t wish to condemn the Panthers outright or at first glance,” he says. “They are more moved to think about the fact African Americans organized to defend their community. A year ago, they might’ve said, ‘Defend their community from what?” but people wouldn’t say that now.”
As the story goes, from their incredible rise to their notorious fall, the sight of young, mobilized Black people caught fire with the media and sympathizers on the ground as BPP chapters sprung up around the country and even Hollywood (Brando, Fonda) got down for the cause. At the same time, law enforcement was taking notes: By the late ’60s, J. Edgar Hoover’s well-documented COINTELPRO program was full blown. Nelson allows all the players in the dramatic take down of the Party to speak to its highs and lows.
“We wanted geographical diversity, and talked to lot of Panthers, men and women. I knew early on, I wanted to tell certain stories, like the murder of Fred Hampton and the LA shootouts, so we found Panthers in the Chicago and LA chapters involved in those events,” he says. “We also wanted to interview as many cops, FBI agents and informants as possible,” he explains. Conversely, events like the UCLA murders of John Huggins and Bunchy Carter were left out as were stories of party sympathizers like H. Rap Brown and Angela Davis (there are also no contemporary interviews with former party leaders Seale and David Hilliard). Plenty of filmmakers, scholars and Panthers themselves have attempted historical overviews of the Party, but award-winning filmmaker Nelson (Freedom Riders, Freedom Summer) has landed on something close to a definitive reading of its politics and people, in all their glory and contradictions.
“I never know why people talk or don’t talk,” says Nelson, “I never ask them. I’m just happy when they do.”