Power to the People: Stanley Nelson debuts a timely chronicle of the Black Panthers

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For the baby-boomer generation coming of age in the 1970s, the slogans of the militant black civil-rights movement, “Black Power,” “Black Is Beautiful” and “All Power to the People,” evoke newspaper photographs of black men toting shotguns, outfitted in dark leather jackets and bandoliers, and black women, most famously scholar and activist Angela Davis, proudly sporting their “Afro” haircuts, sometimes similarly dressed and armed. These cries of protest flash across our memories as they first appeared in Emory Douglas’s iconic drawings in the Black Panther Party newspaper, published in Harlem, and in the buttons and t-shirts that comprised our “social media.” They were shouted at gatherings to the accompaniment of raised fists, in contrast to the open palms and quiet prayers of Martin Luther King’s marches.

In his documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, filmmaker and baby-boomer Stanley Nelson begins with these images, with the allure of power and beauty. “What the Panthers understood more than anything was the media,” he says, “and I think they used it in an incredible way. One of the reasons was that they grew up watching television.”

Nelson is a native New Yorker and a MacArthur Fellow who has produced and directed a dozen films, many of which chronicle the African-American experience. In The Black Panthers, which is a history of that political party, he portrays the height of Black Panther popularity in the decade or so following their 1967 protest at the Sacramento, California statehouse, footage of which appears in the documentary.

Armed and in full regalia, the Panthers arrived for the legislators’ planned repeal of a state law that allowed citizens to carry loaded weapons. As the documentary explains, the vote was in direct response to the party’s armed monitoring of their Oakland, California neighborhood. Patrols were the genesis of the Black Panther Party, a vigilante response to racially motivated attacks by police on communities of color. In The Black Panthers, several brief clips of party members patrolling in cars and interrupting an arrest attest to law enforcement’s treatment of African-Americans in the early 1960s. “The Panthers had seen the more mainstream civil-rights movement, so they could take what worked and use that,” Nelson explains, in his New York City office. “They seized the media, and that is one of the reasons why there is so much great footage and stills that remain from their movement.”

In a field dominated by public-relations representatives and personal assistants, Nelson responded to an interview request by returning the phone call himself. Our June interview was at Firelight, the production company he co-founded, housed in a Sugar Hill, Harlem brownstone. We began with the question of whether The Black Panthers may be viewed as the final documentary in a trilogy that started with Nelson’s Freedom Riders (2011), the story of African-American and white activists whose quiet resistance led to a desegregation of interstate transport, and Freedom Summer (2014), about the 1964 Mississippi get-out-the-black-vote campaign. “It is perceptive of you to look at the documentaries this way,” he responds. “Actually, I think of it as four films. First, we did The Murder of Emmett Till that marks the start of the modern civil-rights movement.” (Fourteen year-old Till was murdered in Mississippi in 1955.)

Nelson goes on to explain that two of the documentaries are linked by a single image. “Freedom Summer ends with Stokely Carmichael saying ‘More Black Power,’” he observes, “and that is one of the first shots that we use in The Black Panthers.” Nelson fleshes out the story through interviews with rank-and-file members, as well as chapter presidents such as Ericka Huggins, and party leaders including Kathleen Cleaver, the wife of the Panthers’ minister of information, Eldridge Cleaver. She was the party’s first communications secretary. Also interviewed is Emory Douglas, artist and editor of the Black Panther Party newspaper. Notable for his absence, except in archival footage, is the only surviving party co-founder Bobby Seale. “We tried our best to come to an agreement,” Nelson explains, “but he would not participate in the film.”

While The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution will open theatrically on Sept. 2 at New York City’s Film Forum, most of Nelson’s work has been broadcast on public television. The recipient of two Emmy awards, he began his career as an assistant to the noted black filmmaker William Greaves, who some will remember from “Black Journal,” a pioneering public-television show about African-Americans. In 2004, Nelson did an interesting turn in front of the camera in A Place of Our Own, which begins with the death of his mother and his first summer alone at her home in Oak Bluffs, a historic black community on Martha’s Vineyard. The documentary is a frank assessment of his childhood, his troubled relationship with his father, and the ways in which his relatively affluent background shielded him from the experiences of the vast majority of his fellow African-Americans.

If his boyhood was sheltered, Nelson is hyper-aware of his status now, especially when he reflects on the absence of other black professionals. “I fly a lot, and if you get on an airplane during the week,” he says, “when business people are traveling, there are no black people. None.” Asked about the lessons he has learned over the years from illustrating the struggles of African-Americans, Nelson does not have to contemplate his answer. “The lesson is that you can make change if you unite, and you know what you are doing,” he says. “The freedom riders caused the signs on buses to be taken down, and Freedom Summer ended with African-Americans getting the right to vote, and laws being passed to ensure that right.” Nelson refers to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that ended literacy tests and other practices used to prevent blacks from registering to vote.

Asked about the legacy of the Black Panthers, Nelson replies, “What is so amazing is that we are sitting here now, 50 years later, talking about the Black Panthers that started out with six guys who just figured out a way to stop the police from beating and killing us in California.” On the issue of whether armed resistance is the answer to racial injustice, Nelson says he tried to tell his story honestly and fairly in The Black Panthers, and that it will “come down where it comes down” on that topical subject. “Now, it is harder to characterize the Panthers as these crazy, militant people,” he observes. “All they were saying is that if the police will not protect us, we have to protect ourselves.”

At the end of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, one of Nelson’s subjects declares that in the final analysis what the Black Panthers did was motivated by “an undying love of the people.” “That’s a very important sentence,” Nelson says. “It’s actually the final sentence in the film that we hear from the Panthers, and it is the bottom line. Right or wrong—and the Panthers made a lot of mistakes—what they did came out of an ‘undying love of the people.’ That’s what we have to get back to.”