Revolution Revisited: Stanley Nelson Explains the Black Panther Movement

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Filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is coming to theaters at a critical point in time. When the Black Panther Party was founded in 1966, it was in reaction to unjust conditions: police violence, substandard education, and joblessness. Nelson writes: “As we witness the similarities between the injustices of yesterday and the tragedies of today, we feel a sense of urgency to share the story of the Black Panther Party. We are struck by the way today's movement around police brutality and accountability is being led by young people seeking change, just as it was with the Black Panther Party almost 50 years ago.”

Nelson has won literally every major award in broadcasting, including a National Medal from President Barack Obama, a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, and a Primetime Emmy, to name just a few. Since Nelson is currently running a Kickstarter project to help fund the theatrical release of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, we asked him to share his impactful and inspiring insights with us. What follows is an annotated series of archival photos from the Black Panther movement, plus his thoughts on how we can learn from our past, and how today's filmmakers can best use storytelling for positive social impact.

1976 photograph of Kathleen Cleaver by Ilke Hartmann
1976 photograph of Kathleen Cleaver by Ilke Hartmann

In creating The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, I knew that using archival footage to tell the story would be just as important as interviews. The Black Panther history cannot be encapsulated in sound bytes and stills; the movement continues to live and breathe in the hearts and minds of those who endured. I had to dig deeper for footage that captured an authentic portrayal of the Party and which was not distorted by mainstream media. What I found was a treasure of personal records from former members and allies across the globe. These rarely seen images became an important character in the film, telling the story of how the Black Panther Party impacted all communities. There is something incredibly powerful in seeing an array of faces — white, Asian, Latino, black, and native — together at a Black Panther Party rally calling for the reform of corrupt and unjust state institutions.

A group of seven small children walk to school with books in hand. Photo courtesy of Stephen Shames.
A group of seven small children walk to school with books in hand. Photo courtesy of Stephen Shames.
Charles Bursey hands plate of food to a child seated at Free Breakfast Program.  Photo courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch.
Charles Bursey hands plate of food to a child seated at Free Breakfast Program. Photo courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch.

In many black urban communities, the Black Panther Party became heroes for their bold stance against racial injustice, police brutality and for their efforts to better conditions for working-class people. For many children, the Panthers' Free Breakfast Program was the “face” of the Party, and it endeared many families to the Panthers. At its height, the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast Program served meals to over 5,000 kids every day in over 30 chapters across the country.

Two older women with bags from People's Free Food Program.  Photo courtesy of Stephen Shames.
Two older women with bags from People's Free Food Program. Photo courtesy of Stephen Shames.

Referred to as “Survival Programs,” The Black Panther Party developed several social programs that provided assistance to the community, including free medical clinics, health classes, free clothing and more. The above photo features women receiving food from the People’s Free Food Program, operated by Black Panther Party members. 

Women drilling with Panther flags. Photo courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch.
Women drilling with Panther flags. Photo courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch.

Women were key to the growth and rise of the Black Panther Party. We made special effort in the film to lift up the voices of the women rank and file members who are often left out of the popular representations of the Party.

Kathleen Cleaver was the Black Panther Party National Communications Secretary and the first woman to be appointed to the Black Panthers Central Committee. She is now a public intellectual, sought-after speaker, and law professor at Emory University.

Black Panthers from Sacramento, Free Huey Rally, Bobby Hutton Memorial Park in Oakland, CA, 1969. Photo courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch.
Black Panthers from Sacramento, Free Huey Rally, Bobby Hutton Memorial Park in Oakland, CA, 1969. Photo courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch.

Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton was jailed and charged with the 1st degree murder of an Oakland Police officer on October 1967. The Black Panthers held a number of rallies throughout the country to raise awareness and resources for the Huey P. Newton Defense Fund. “Free Huey” became a popular rallying cry among students in high schools and on college campuses and came to symbolize a call for justice.

What can learn from our past as we confront so many of the same issues today?

Nearly half a century after the founding of the Panthers, we find our voices in a renewed chorus for justice and equality. We continue to witness a state apparatus that perpetuates a culture of fear and aggression with frequent and unwarranted displays of racial violence and oppression. As we consider the similarities between the injustices of yesterday and the tragedies of today, it is important to understand that the Panthers were energized largely by young people — 25 and under — who started as a small group of actively engaged individuals that collectively became an international human rights phenomenon.

Sadly, the conditions that propelled young people to join the Panthers fifty years ago are the same conditions that are pushing young people into the streets today. The tactics are different — young people today have traded guns for cameras and posters for Twitter messages — but the conditions, and goals, are similar.

My hope is that the film reveals itself to be more than just thought-provoking observations of our past. To better understand the Black Panther Party is to be able to better reflect on our own racial climate and collective responsibility to ensure basic rights are fulfilled, not diminished, and that voices of justice and dissent are celebrated, not silenced with violence and repression. Also, I think the Panthers offer important lessons about how to engage with law enforcement, the press, politicians and allies. And perhaps more importantly, the story of the Panthers offers a blueprint on how to inspire and mobilize thousands of young people to address the needs of their community.

Do you have advice for filmmakers looking to document socially charged events and histories? How can today's storytellers make the biggest impact possible?

Seven years ago, I set out to tell the story of the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party, a little known history that hadn’t been told in its entirety. My approach with all of my historical documentaries is to forgo the voice of a narrator who “interprets” history, and allow history to come alive through the voices of people who lived the events. Whenever possible, I rely on firsthand witnesses, then I look to archival images and video to fill in the gaps and provide the look and feel for the time.

I think it is critically important for us to revisit history, to insist that history to be told by the people at the center of the events, and to reassess the versions of history we were taught. History is a powerful tool to remind us of where we came from and to consider where we want to go – both as a community and as a nation. We want our films to be seen, discussed, and used as tools to educate and inspire people to take action in the communities. As we say at Firelight Media, “watch history, then make your own!”

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