The kind of movie that lingers on in your head, just like the best fairy tales do.
Stanley Nelson is one of this country's most preeminent documentary filmmakers. For over 15 years he has been chronicling various and diverse aspects of black life and culture in America with films like "Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind," "Freedom Summer," "Freedom Riders" and "A Place of Our Own," but with his own unique intimate personal insight which makes his film even more profound.
His latest work, the much anticipated "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution," details the remarkable rise and sudden fall of the prominent black militant organization that inspired a new generation while at the same time terrifying the establishment from the mid-1960s to the early '70s. Their lasting impact is a fascinating story as well as cautionary tale about power, political and social activism, and what happens when the powers that be, as well as internal strife, come together to destroy a political force that was on the verge of creating some real change in this country.
Last week, I had the opportunity to talk to Nelson about his film, the forces that bought the Panthers into being and how they would compare with more recent political activism efforts such as the Black Lives Matter movement.
You're of the generation that grew up with the Black Panthers. Did you have any personal involvement with them?
Well, I grew up in New York City, so when the Panthers came into being, I was 15 or so. I never joined the Panthers, but I was very intrigued by them. I liked their look and their rhetoric, and they were talking about issues that were of concern for us in the North, so I was very, very, very intrigued by the Panthers. In fact, when I was in high school, a friend and I walked over to the Panthers headquarters and we wanted to see what was going on and we looked around and said "Nah, I don’t think we want to join yet" [laughs].
Well, you just said that you make an important point in your film that the Panthers were very much a Northern, urban movement unlike the Civil Rights movement, which was very much a Southern "thing," though it impacted the entire country. And, at the time, attitudes were changing. Established civil rights groups, such as SNCC and the SCLC, were seen as antiquated, basically begging white people to help us while the Panthers were more in your face and aggressive saying: "Hey you don’t give us what's rightfully ours we’re going to take it."
Right exactly, I think that's very astute of you. That was definitely one of the ways in which we saw it. And you have to remember that I was 15 when they started the whole Panthers imagery and we were their target age. That's how we saw it as young people. My parents at the time didn’t see it the same way. My parents saw them as “Who in the hell are these guys?” [laughs]. But for us, as young people, we were really galvanized by the Panthers.
And there was also the visual aspect of them as you also point out in your film. The way they dressed with the black leather coats, black pants, black berets and the shades. For lack of a better word, there was something definitely "sexy" about them.
Oh yeah they were sexy, they were sexy all right. That's the right word. And that was another big attraction for us as young people, but for the media as well. And you have to understand too, that we had never seen black people with this kind of attitude before, not on TV, not in the movies, not even in real life; kind of giving the finger to the white man's face. That was not Martin Luther King Jr.. This was something very, very different. One of the things that has lasted about the Panthers is that attitude. I don't think there could be hip-hop without the Panthers. It's a very hip-hop attitude.
To put this into the framework of movies, it's like younger people don’t understand when I tell them what an enormous impact those “Blaxploitation” films during the '70s had on me. They don’t get it. It's the same finger in the white man's face attitude. We didn’t want to see Sidney Poitier being all nice and acquiescent to the white man like that line he says in "No Way Out”: “I can’t let that man die because he hates me.” We wanted to see Jim Brown kicking the ass of racist white villains and cheering him on.
Yeah, and that was that new attitude that was coming. But remember, we were coming off an era when just a few years earlier you barely saw any black people at all on TV in any capacity, and it’s very hard for younger people who weren’t around at that time to understand that. There were no black people on TV.
I'll bet the same thing happened in your family that when you were watching a TV show as a kid and a black person appeared, even just an extra walking in the background, you called out for everyone in the house to hurry down to watch him before he disappeared. Most of time they got there too late. “Aww, gee you missed him. He was right there!”
Yeah, right! [Laughs] Well you know there have been studies about that all you have to do is to have a black person in the background as an extra and that’s what we see, that's what we notice. For most shows, you never even saw that. Occasionally you would get a black actor in a guest starring role on a TV episode or if you saw a black entertainer performing some on variety show like James Brown or Diana Ross on "The Ed Sullivan Show." So those were the times we were coming out of when the Panthers or these black films of the period came to be. It's easier to understand the phenomena that were the Black Panthers, the milieu that we were living in at that time.
I find one of the great things about your documentary is that you're very honest as well. You deal with J. Edgar Hoover’s and the FBI’s COINTELPRO program to destroy the Panthers and other black radical and civil rights organizations. But at the same time, the internal conflicts and egos among the founders and leaders of the group also hastened their demise. You don’t present an over-romanticized view of the group. If you have people you're going to have egos and if you have egos you're going to have problems
Well, how do you tell a story? You tell it by being honest [laughs]. It makes a story that much better and that much deeper. I admit as a filmmaker, it makes it very more complicated, but it still makes it better.
Now that the film is completed and you have had time to reflect on it, have you wondered where the Panthers could have gone if Hoover's plan to destroy had failed and if those running it hadn’t clashed with each other over petty differences and worked together?
No that's total speculation and it's hard to say. I think if the FBI hadn’t had been involved and there were no internal conflicts and probably if you removed Huey (Newton) and Eldridge (Cleaver), you still had a huge component of very committed African-American people, so who knows what could have happened? What could have come out of that?
But I think the thing that is really interesting is that they came up right before drugs invaded that African American community. So in 1966, '67, '68, in the African American community, you didn’t have this influx of heavy drugs that came later on. You had all these people who had all this young energy of youth and you also had the Vietnam war looming over their heads as well, so they were pushing for change. Six, seven years down the line, the war is over and drugs have inflected the black community.
I've talked to one or two women friends who have seen your film and, even though you do address it, they felt that you did not give enough attention to the misogyny and sexism inside the Panthers. And let me add that it wasn’t just the Panthers. Other civil rights groups such as The NAACP, SNCC, SCLC for example also had their own major problems with sexism at the time as well but people like point to the Panthers.
I think that we accurately portray what was going on in the Party at that point. Our film covers the years from 1966 to 1973 and interviewing the women who we talked to here was nothing that we kept out of the film. I think some really terrible things happened after that point and I'm sure that some really terrible things happened before that point, but that's not what we got from the women that we interviewed.
And actually, I was at a screening of just some scenes from the film very early on and this young African-American feminist got up and said the same thing about misogyny and horrible things that were done to women and three or four of the Panther women who were at the screening shouted her down. They told her that those were not their experiences. So when you have Panther alumni at Panther screenings and conventions, you find a lot of women there. You find a lot of women who were involved and proud about their participation in the Party. Yes it existed, but that's not what we found and my feeling is that a lot of those stories people may be hearing happened after 1973 when the Party was slowly deteriorating. It was a very different thing.
A friend of mine and I were comparing the Black Panthers with the current Black Lives Matters movement and we didn’t see much of a similarity. The Panthers were an organized group with clearly defined leaders and officers with a clearly defined set of goals they were pursuing. BLM seems to me too diffuse; no one really knows who really runs it and to me it looks more like an easy “hashtag” armchair protest: “I tweeted something, now I can go back to my video games” What do you say about that?
Well, my understanding is that one of the things with the Black Lives Matter movement is that this is purposeful, that they do not have a real head. That this is one of the ways that they are trying to go about this movement, not to have a clear leader that other movements have had, for better or worse. Who knows if that’s going to work or not? We’ll see. It’s an experiment to see if they can operate without this hierarchy.
But I think the problem is that as your media attention needs increase, then you’re going to have to have people who will speak for the movement and then those people become the leaders whether they want to or not. They become identified to the public as leaders and that’s hard to avoid.
Finally, have younger people who have seen the film expressed to you that they feel they have missed something - that furor of the times, that sort of energy, that commitment and wish that they could bring that back today? I say that because until recently, it seems to me that younger generations tended to be more politically apathetic
Oh yeah I get that feeling all the time, How do we take this and bottle it and use it? But I think the thing to think about though is that the Black Panthers did not come out of a vacuum. They rose out of the traditional civil rights movement. They rose out of the anti-Vietnam War movement. The anti-war movement is central to this whole narrative. Back then, you were in a space where any man in this country of draft age could be snatched up and taken into the jungle, given a gun and told to fight. So that politicized everybody. It made everybody think, 'how do I change this,' whether you were for the war or against it. You couldn’t ignore it. It was literally a life or death situation.
But right now, I think it’s a tragic time with all these horrible deaths, but also it’s a positive time seeing so many young people organizing and pushing for change and in a larger way and a more vocal way than there were even just two years ago. And we’re even seeing race being discussed in a way that it wasn’t just a few years ago. We’re talking about things. We’re talking about this country and what does it stand for?
"The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution" opens Sept 2 at the Film Forum in New York City and continues opening in other cities across the country throughout the rest of September and October. with a PBS broadcast premiere scheduled for sometime in 2016.