Stanley Nelson revisits revolution with “Black Panthers”

Over a span of seven years, the filmmaker and his team dug deep into a tumultuous period of American history to craft the story behind the rise and fall of the Black Panther movement.
June 2, 2020

This article was originally published on February 4, 2016.

While many other icons of the counter-culture movements of the 1960s have received the documentary treatment, a thorough look at the Black Panthers has been a long time coming.

Active from 1966 to 1982, the Black Panther Party started in Oakland as a response to police brutality and social issues of the time and later spread across the U.S. and expanded to encompass education and community social programs.

The group’s politics were inspired by revolutionary movements in Cuba, Southeast Asia and Africa, with members brandishing guns and dressing in paramilitary garb to “police the police,” attract media attention and rally poor, city-dwelling black Americans to demand economic and political rights.

The party’s controversial, aggressive tactics and leftist ideologies rankled federal law enforcement and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who set out to divide the Panthers from within.

In The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, filmmaker Stanley Nelson uses a mix of archival footage and photos as well as original interviews to revisit the Black Power movement in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s.

The doc, which airs on PBS on February 16 at 9 p.m. EST, charts the group’s origins, its media significant events such as cofounder Huey Newton’s release from prison and the police raid in Chicago that resulted in the death of party leader Fred Hampton in 1969. It is also part of a trilogy about African-American history called ‘America Revisited’ that Nelson is directing for the ITVS and PBS doc strand ‘Independent Lens.’

“Filmmakers think making an historical documentary is a lot easier than it is,” says the veteran docmaker and Firelight Media cofounder.

“We love the guy that goes to Afghanistan, runs through the desert and gets shot at, but all films are really difficult to make. Although we’re not risking our lives in the same way with historical films, to get what’s on the screen up on the screen is not simple.

“I knew going in there was significant archive of Panther material,” he adds. “The Panthers were this media phenomenon in the day. The big question for me at the beginning was: can I make this film without narration? I felt that because there were so many Panthers who were alive [as well as] witnesses – cops, FBI agents –we could do it.”

Over seven years – during which Nelson would take a break to finish Freedom Ridersfor PBS – producers amassed an archive of Panthers footage collections and well-known filmmakers such as Agnès Varda and William Klein.

Nelson hired producer Laurens Grant, who led the search for little or never-before-seen Panther footage. Initially Grant thought she had two and a half years, but the extended production schedule turned out to be beneficial to the massive undertaking ahead: the team ultimately logged and cataloged close to 7,000 items.

The seven-year schedule gave her more time to pursue sources that were initially hesitant to participate in the film. For example, Grant tracked down the son of freelance photographer Kenneth Green, who was around for the party’s early days.

The son’s garage was full of negatives and prints – some labeled, some not – but it took persuading to allow producers access to the collection.

children walk by panther power graffiti (photo: stephen shames)

Children walk by Panther Power graffiti (photo: Stephen Shames)

“He really wanted to take the care to bring his father’s work to light and so he was nervous because it was all new to him,” she recalls.

The production also encountered cynicism among former Panthers and their families who had been repeatedly approached over the years to participate in various Panther-related movie projects that never went anywhere.

“A lot of it was concern, suspicion and wariness because we were wallowing in the blowback from Hollywood in the ’70s,” says Grant. “We did have to wade in those waters to convince people to trust us with their work, but I understand why. Hearing the photographers talk about their images, the closeness they have to them and the closeness to that era – it’s also a history they lived through the lens.

“So I felt that extra weight, but I also knew that archive was essential to the film and we had to get something new and fresh,” she continues. “It was really important to stick with them and say, ‘We really think it’s important that you participate in this film.’”

Not only did Nelson want producers to unearth unseen archive, he wanted to ensure as many images as possible came from African-American photographers, such as Howard Bingham and Stephen Shames.

“I like to think that they are our generation’s World War II correspondents. They were the civil rights or Black Power movement photographers,” says Grant. “We felt it was important that they be included in this type of film along with the usual archival suspects – the local affiliates, the NBCs, CBSs and BBCs of the world.”

Without a narrator, the archival material also had to advance and explain the story without relying too much on interview sources for exposition. The Panthers were involved in several shoot-outs with police but Nelson decided to focus on a five-hour gun battle with the Los Angeles Police Department’s newly formed SWAT division in 1969.

The firefight took place at the Panthers’ Southern California headquarters, which they had fortified with sandbags. Officers could not get in so the gunplay dragged on, giving news crews ample time to get there and capture the action.

Nelson interviewed eyewitnesses, former police officers as well as the former Panthers in order to get all sides and convey the mood.

“Wayne Pharr was trapped in the building. The police were shooting in, he was shooting out and he’s running out of bullets. I asked him, ‘How did you feel?’ and he said, ‘I felt free. I was a free Negro,’” recalls Nelson.

“It’s an incredible piece because when he says it he’s looking dead at me, unblinking. It’s startling. “As I’m talking to people I’m constantly saying, ‘We’re back there. We’re in 1967, 1968. How did you feel? What did you see?’” adds Nelson. “I didn’t want them to talk about, ‘If only I knew then what I know now.’ Sometimes I’ll even ask, ‘What did it smell like?’

“Smell is one of our craziest memories. We really want people to go back and be in the moment back then. Sometimes it leads to real magic.”

director stanley nelson

Director Stanley Nelson

Another sequence Nelson was able to tell from multiple sides was a conversation between Party founder Huey Newton and Algeria-based member Eldridge Cleaver. The pair argued over the phone on a live talk show, resulting in Cleaver’s expulsion from the party in 1971.

Grant had footage and audio from Cleaver’s wife and the talk show host, Jim Dunbar, but was also able to source footage of Cleaver talking on the phone in Algeria shot by French photographer William Klein.

The footage turned up three years ago after Nelson mentioned during a director talk that his next project would be a documentary about the Black Panthers. A man approached him afterward and mentioned he had Panther-related Portapak footage sitting in his closet at home and offered to give it to the production. Grant spent a month tracking the man down and then finding a facility that could transfer it.

“That type of thing happens more than you would think,” Nelson says. “It’s this real shot of adrenaline because you wonder, ‘Are we are on the right path?’ But there is something in the universe that’s working with us to get this thing made, because so many times when you’re making a film it feels like the universe is working against you.”

As Nelson was editing the film in 2014 in time for the doc to premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, news of the Black Lives Matter protest movement and footage of police violence was reaching a boil in the press and online.

The poignancy was not lost on the production team.

“The film was relevant seven years ago and it just became more and more relevant as we went forward,” he says. The doc’s focus on how the tone and tactics of African-American activists have evolved and the way the media has covered that evolution is clearly resonating with viewers.

Black Panthers premiered at Sundance in January and opened theatrically in the U.S. last fall through PBS Distribution. The initial run was supposed to be eight cities but expanded to 60. It also played another 150 cities at festivals or one-off events and it played in the UK in 15 cities. Nelson has attended many of those screenings, sometimes with former Panthers and Black Lives Matter activists in attendance.

Ahead of the U.S. TV premiere on ‘Independent Lens’ in February, ITVS is organizing 75 to 85 community screenings of the film across the U.S.

“It’s been the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” he says. “We never thought it would reach the amount of people that it would.”

“Hopefully the film can be a takeaway that people can use to understand what it means to be an activist,” adds Grant. “It was every day, all day and they sacrificed a lot for what they believed in. Whether or not you believe it too, that is what it means to be involved in something that deeply.”

  • This story, part of our Archive Focus, first appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of Realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
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