Change was coming to America and the fault lines were no longer ignorable—cities were burning, Vietnam was exploding, and disputes raged over equality and civil rights. A new revolutionary culture was emerging and it sought to drastically transform the system. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense would, for a short time, put itself at the vanguard of that change.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is the first feature length documentary to showcase the Black Panther Party, its significance to the broader American culture, its cultural and political awakening for black people, and the painful lessons wrought when a movement derails. Master documentarian Stanley Nelson goes straight to the source, weaving a treasure of rare archival footage with the voices of the people who were there: police, FBI informants, journalists, white supporters and detractors, and Black Panthers who remained loyal to the party and those who left it. An essential history, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, is a vibrant chronicle of this pivotal movement that birthed a new revolutionary culture in America.
With the 2015 Sundance Film Festival WORLD PREMIERE of The Black Panthers: Vanguards of the Revolution at hand, we spoke with Stanley Nelson at length about the film’s development, as well as the need for this film to be seen right now, and much more. The Black Panthers: Vanguards of the Revolution screens one last time at Sundance on Saturday, January 31, 2015.
Find More Information & Tickets to ‘The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution – HERE
Why did you want to do a documentary about such a divisive group in American history?
I’m not sure I would look at them as divisive. It’s a very complicated history and in a lot of ways that makes an intriguing film because it is not simple or straightforward. There are a lot of misconceptions that can be highlighted and addressed in film and that was an important part of my decision to make this documentary.
Was it a challenge to balance the various polarizing perspectives and voices — for, against, or mixed — regarding this controversial group in history?
I think it’s a challenge to balance the story of the Panthers because as a filmmaker you have a limited amount of time to tell the story and there is so much to the Black Panther history. I don’t think it’s an entirely balanced view that we are trying to get across because we aren’t trying to tell J. Edgar Hoover’s story – , but it is the story of the Panthers. We do try to balance it with facts and first-hand accounts and be as thorough as we can be.
How were you able to persuade the participation of both former Black Panther members and their opposition — the retired FBI agents and police officers?
It was a process to talk to people and continue to engage. We emphasized that what we were trying to do was have different sides present their experiences and capture more than one opinion in the film. That last part was especially important to the agents and police officers we spoke to. With the Panthers, we framed it as their best and maybe last chance to tell their story because who knows when another comprehensive film on the Black Panthers will be made. I also assured them that the goal wasn’t to slam Panthers – I really wanted to make an informed and balanced film.
This documentary gives us an insider look at the Black Panther Party via personal stories from individual members. Were there certain individual stories that didn’t make the cut (even if they were compelling), and how did you decide which ones (and to what capacity) to include in the final version?
I think it was important for the stories that we told to be part of the whole. There’s hundreds and thousands of incidents that happened in the 7-8 years of Panther history and we could have chosen any number of them. What was essential was that each individual story represented a key piece that led to the whole and totality of the Panther story.
Did you have any difficulties getting any interviewees to open up completely about sensitive or private topics?
There were individuals that were involved in situations where people were killed and who didn’t want to implicate themselves, their friends, or anyone else. Sometimes that presented interesting answers when subjects didn’t want to say specifically what happened, which made for amusing and funny moments. For example, one of our subjects talks about how during a stand off, his gun just “went off” and he “didn’t know how it happened”.
Some may share J. Edgar Hoover’s view that the Black Panthers were dangerous for having weaponry be a signature part of their identity. But this documentary shows all viewers the positive ways that they helped to build and give back to their local black communities. Do you hope this film will open people’s eyes to show that things aren’t as simple as black and white?
Yes, I think that the Panther story is much more complicated than they were good or they were bad and I think the film shows that. One key takeaway for audiences is that their intentions were good. Everything they did wasn’t necessarily good but their intentions were generally to try and help the African American community.
Although the Black Panther Party was founded nearly 50 years ago, the issues faced by the group are still prominent in today’s Western society. What do you think all of us today can learn from how the Black Panthers revolted against oppression?
I think one of the main points of the film is that the Black Panthers were young people who felt they could change the situation in America. We would love people to walk away from the film feeling that change is possible and it can come from young people who feel like they have the ability to do so.
Did your view of the Black Panther Party change or grow in any way as a result of making this documentary?
I didn’t realize when I started the documentary how much support the Panthers had outside of the black community. They had a lot of support from white intellectuals, those on the left, other communities of color, young people – really a broad base of support. That really changed my understanding of the Panthers, especially after learning about the huge role of women in the Party. Also, I didn’t realize the depth of the FBI’s involvement in the destruction of the Panthers. The FBI was very forward about this in the reports they wrote and there was clear documentation that the FBI set out to destroy the Panthers.
“Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” is set to be the first installment of the three-part “America Revisited” series. Can you tell us about “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities” and “The Slave Trade: Creating a New World”?
The next is a film, Tell Them We Are Rising, looks at the history of HBCUs and formation of the black middle class. It also in to the future and asks if HBCUs are still relevant and needed. The Slave Trade is about the trans-Atlantic slave trade and how that trade changed the world we lived in. It’s about the business of the trade and what it did to establish so many institutions that we know today such as banking and insurance
Despite the fact that Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave won three of the nine Oscars it was nominated for last year, including Best Picture, Ava DuVernay’s Selma is only nominated for two. In addition, this year’s Academy Award nominees are predominantly caucasian. Why do you think it continues to be a struggle for African-American-centric period films to be treated in the same respect as their American period drama peers instead of being separated as “black history”?
I think that if we’re talking about Hollywood, it’s hard to make a Hollywood film with a black person or any person of color at the center of it. It’s something that’s been hard for Hollywood to do because Hollywood is a deeply racist institution. For all of its history that’s what Hollywood was. Until the 60s you didn’t see a black face, or Asian face, or Latino face at all. They were really wiped out from history and from the big screen. Historical films also tend to be more expensive and there is a tendency to think that films with black faces don’t travel well overseas where a significant portion of Hollywood’s revenue comes from nowadays.
– Interview conducted by Alfonso Espina
About the Filmmaker
Stanley Nelson is a multiple Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, MacArthur “genius” Fellow, and member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama in August 2014.
Nelson is the director of twelve documentary features, including Freedom Summer, Freedom Riders, Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple and The Murder of Emmett Till. He is also co-founder of Firelight Media, which, with the support of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, provides technical support to diverse emerging documentary producers. Having premiered 8 films at the Sundance Film Festival and with multiple industry awards to his credit, Nelson is acknowledged as one of the premiere filmmakers working today. He is currently in production on Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which is the second in a series of three films Nelson will direct as part of a new multiplatform PBS series entitled America Revisited. He holds a BFA from City College of New York and an Honorary Doctorate from Haverford College.