When Stanley Nelson started working on THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION, it was seven years ago and he thought the history of that movement was particularly relevant to those times. In 2015, he thinks it’s even more relevant. When I spoke to him on October 1, 2015, the echoes of the Panther movement in the phrase “Black Live Matter’ was one of the first things we talked about. He also enumerated the Panther’s Ten Point Program, printed in every issue of the Party’s newspaper, a program demanding an end to violence and a beginning of equal access to education and housing that has somehow gotten lost in the escalating rhetoric that the Party provoked in the status quo. It was one of the reasons that he wanted to tell this story from the point of view of the rank and file, as he put it, not the superstars, but the people who ran the neighborhood programs and answered the telephones. He admitted to being surprised at how important women were to the party, making up the majority of the membership towards the end.
He also recalled his own memories of those times, the impression the Panthers had on him as an adolescent; how seeing young black men standing up to power and yelling back left him stunned and excited. We finished up, though, by discussing the ironies that history can sometimes provide in retrospect.
THE BLACK PANTHERS is his documentary about the first life cycle of the Black Panther movement from its origins in reaction to police brutality on the streets of Oakland, to its work providing breakfasts to children who needed them while also agitating for economic and social justice, to the fraying of the party’s structure as its leadership had different visions of where it should go. In a history lesson that has all too many counterparts in contemporary America, Nelson talks to the people who were there, countering the mainstream media’s depiction of the movement, and challenging the resulting perception of them that has come down to us. Nelson’s previous work includes, Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind, Beyond Brown: Pursuing the Promise, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, and a multi-part series on PBS’ American Experience about the Freedom Riders. He was also a consulting producer for Peter Nicks’ doc, THE WAITING ROOM and is currently working on FREE FOR ALL: Inside the Public Library. He is also the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant.