by Brianna Rae
Award-winning director and producer Stanley Nelson recently visited Madison to promote his new documentary film The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which premiers on PBS Tuesday, February 16. Nelson’s career has spanned over 25 years and has focused on the narratives, experiences, and history of Black Americans. His highly respected films – Freedom Riders (2010), The Murder of Emmett Till (2003), and Freedom Summer (2014), just to name a few – have entertained, educated, and inspired audiences of all backgrounds.
BR: You were in high school when the Black Panther Party (BPP) rose to prominence. How did you feel about it at the time?
SN: I was 15 or so and in New York, so in some ways I was their target audience, you know, a black teenager in the north. They were fascinating to me. For us, we had grown up with the Civil Rights Movement (CRM), and in some ways, there was this feeling like, this [movement] has gone as far as it’s going to go. We’ve seen people get hosed and beaten and cigarettes put out on them, and where’s it going to go from here? The Panthers for us answered that question.
BR: As someone who has witnessed several prominent social movements – the CRM, the BPP, Black Nationalism, and now Black Lives Matter (BLM) – what are the similarities that you see between BLM and the BPP? Do you see anything missing from BLM that can be learned from the BPP, or do you see anything that has been improved on?
SN: I think that there are a lot of similarities, I mean the BPP started because of police brutality, and that’s the same thing that sparked BLM. They are groups comprised of mostly young people, and I think the BPP was a group that inspired a lot of people. I mean, here we are 50 years later talking about them.
They put their lives on the line, and I think one of things that the film is very clear about is that they made a lot of mistakes, they weren’t angels, they weren’t perfect, but they felt like they could make positive changes in their communities and in their country, and I think that’s also what BLM is about. I don’t know this is a direct lesson from the Panthers, but I think BLM is trying to be a leaderless group. And part of what destroyed the BPP was its leaders – as the leaders implode, so does the organization.
I don’t know if having a leaderless movement can work, but let’s hope it can.
I understand why they would want to not focus on any one leader, but I also think it’s harder for us who are not part of the organization to identify it. We’re so used to identifying organizations with individuals, so if we don’t have one, we’ll pick one, or it just becomes amorphous. But who knows, I think they have a strategy, and it’s not by accident, and let’s hope it works.
BR: The BLM Movement seems to be shunning a politics of respectability that was present in previous movements.
SN: Well, I think the Panthers were one of the first major groups to shun a politics of respectability. One of the central ideas of the CRM was that, ‘We are going to show you how respectable we are.’ They wore suits and ties, and the women all wore dresses, and it was a calculated choice. And at the time, it was really smart and needed to happen.
But, one of the Panthers greatest contributions to the CRM was saying, ‘that’s not how we are.’ Their iconography of the beret, the Afro, the leather jacket — they put their finger in your face and said, ‘F— you.’ And it was amazing how many people that attracted, it really resonated with a lot of people, white, Black, yellow, brown. It was time.
And the BPP really challenged the constant accusation of Black folks of being angry all the time. White folks are always saying, ‘Why are you so angry?’ Well, I’m angry because of the way I’m treated! We have a RIGHT to be angry, and I think that’s what the Panthers represented.
BR: There’s been a new emphasis on Black futurity in the context of Black History Month. The activist group Ferguson Action has stated, “Black History Month has become a sanitized and corporatized version of the black experience in this country. February has become a retelling of black facts removed from black struggle. Inspired by the will and tenacity of our people to refuse the chains of our history and the limitations of our present, we declare this February and all Februaries #BlackFutureMonth.” As a filmmaker who focuses on Black history, how do you feel about this shift?
SN: This is the first I’ve heard of this, and on the face of it, it’s great. I think Black History Month at its best does look towards the future, and maybe as they’re saying, we need to do that with more intentionality. But I think one of the ways to start that conversation is to look to the past.
BR: What are you working on right now?
SN: The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is part of a three-part series that we’re doing for PBS. The second part we’re filming and editing right now, it’s about Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and then after that, we’ll be doing a film on the Atlantic Slave Trade and the business of slavery.
BR: What new perspective does this film offer to the public’s understanding of the BPP? What does it add, or how does it change the narrative?
SN: I think anyone who sees the film will learn something new and have a different perspective. For example, a lot of people don’t know that by the 70s, the BPP was mostly women, and mostly young people in or even under their 20s. Or, that J. Edgar Hoover set out to destroy the Panthers, and actually documented it. It’s not rumor or myth, he wrote it down that he’ll do anything he can to destroy the movement. He went out to infiltrate the Party and pit people against each other, and even kill members like Fred Hampton. The film also talks about the children’s breakfast programs and community clinics that the Panthers created, which a lot of people don’t know about. It’s all in there, I hope you get to see it.