Vanguard of the 1960s revolution

September 21, 2015

Almost 50 years since the founding of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, a new documentary celebrates this history, using interviews and archival footage to tell the story of one of the most important left organizations of the past century. Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson directed Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which is now being shown around the country. He spoke with Haley Pessin while he was in New York City to screen the film.

IT'S NEARLY 50 years since the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was founded, and yet this is the first feature-length documentary to focus explicitly on the Black Panther Party. Could you talk about how you decided to make this film?

I REALIZED there really had not been a film about the Black Panthers. I felt that their story is very important for a number of reasons. Just as a piece of the history of our country, it's very important. But it's also very important as a history of the struggle in our country for equality.

I understood that the Black Panthers have so much relevance today. The Black Panthers had a 10-point program which included things like an end to police brutality and better schools, better housing and other demands. And those things still have not been accomplished--we're still pretty much in the same place we were in 1966. I felt all of those things were relevant, and we used them in making this film.

But I also felt as a filmmaker that this was a story where the people who had been part of it were still alive and vibrant. They were very important--we had great people to interview. I should say that five of the people that we interviewed in this film have passed away since we interviewed them. So it wasn't only a timely story, but it was critical that we do it now.

One of the many photos used in The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
One of the many photos used in The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

And as a filmmaker--look, the Panthers were sexy. They were media darlings. There's an incredible amount of photographs and film footage and music from those times to be used to make the film exciting. Both sides had over-the-top characters--the Panthers had Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, and law enforcement had J. Edgar Hoover. So I thought it was a story that was so rich, there were many reasons to tell it.

I THINK you're right. It's impossible to see this film without being struck by the incredible confidence of people at that time to resist, and without making parallels to the period we're living in today--with the rise of mass incarceration and police brutality, but also resistance from Ferguson to Baltimore. Could you talk more about Black Panthers' relevance today?

THE BLACK Panthers started in 1966 in Oakland, California, as a result of police brutality locally. They started carrying guns, because in California at that time, you could carry a loaded weapon, as long as it was out in the open.

The Panthers would follow the police around and police the police. So when the police would jump out to make a traffic stop or something, the Panthers would also get out of their cars behind the police and stand 20 feet away or so, just to make sure that there was no, as they put it, brutalities involved in the incident.

And that's how they came into being: police brutality, something that we still have with us today. And I think there's so much relevance to the Panthers for young people who are beginning movements all across the country. The average age of the Panthers was 19. So they were very, very young and I think there's lesson to be learned, both on the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, of what they did.

I THINK for all those reasons, it's going to strike a chord with people today, whether they know the history of the Panthers or not. But even for people who do, you show a lot of things in this film that people haven't seen. One striking thing I can think of right now is how broad the support for the Panthers was. You have these rallies to free Huey Newton that actually were mostly white, and included college students and a wide swath of society. Could you talk a little about what made them a vanguard of revolution? How were they able to get such broad support?

THAT'S A great point that you make, and I'm glad you made it, because one of the things we wanted to show in this film was that the Panthers had such broad-based support at the time. The Panthers have come down to us in history as this organization that was totally isolated from everything else that was going on at that time. But as the film makes clear--a lot of times, just visually--that's not the way it was.

You see these rallies, and you see Eldridge Cleaver speaking or Bobby Seale speaking, and the audience is 95 percent white, and cheering and supporting the Panthers. I think that's really important. One of the things that J. Edgar Hoover wanted to do, which he stated in a memo, was to isolate the Black Panthers from the mainstream and the Black community. In fact, I think that now, they're looked at in a very different way than they were back then.

One of the reasons why they were so accepted by a large number of people is because they were in the middle of a revolution at the time in the late 1960s. There were a number of groups who were fighting and protesting, and so we wanted to try to get that feeling across.

The other thing that's really important to understand is that this all happened during the Vietnam era. You can't talk about that era without talking about Vietnam, because there was a draft going on. So you might, as a young man, be drafted once you turned 18 and sent into the jungle with a gun to fight a war. And for women, their loved ones, their lovers, husbands, brothers, sons--they might be sent to fight a war. So it politicized everybody.

There was no way you could not think about what was going on in the world because we were in this war, and there was a draft, so you might have to go fight. Even if you weren't opposed to the war, it wasn't something that you could ignore.

IT SEEMS like a lot of these different issues actually fed back on each other, and the Panthers came up in the perfect context for it?

IT THINK that you also have to look at the traditional civil rights movement, because the Panthers came out of that. It's important that we understand the Panthers wouldn't have existed without Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy and the traditional civil rights movement.

A lot of them were actually in the traditional civil rights movement, but they watched and asked: How do we deal with our problems in the North? They were feeling like there had been all these changes--there's the Voting Rights Act passed, there's the Civil Rights Act passed--but it hasn't really changed our lives. So how do we go about really changing things?"

I THINK another thing that was striking to me is the role of women in the party. Very often, we hear about the Black Power era, or the Panthers in particular, being sexist and assume there's quite a bit of truth to that. But you actually show in the film that at a certain point, the rank and file of the Black Panthers was actually majority women.

I WAS startled by that myself. By the early 1970s, the majority of Panthers were women, and there was an effort in the party to get women on the central committee.

Now, did it always work? No. It didn't always work. But I think a lot of the terribleness that we hear about with the Black Panther Party really happened after the scope of this film. This film deals with 1966 to 1973 or so. The Panthers kept on going for almost another 10 years of petering out.

YOU REALLY showcased the role of COINTELPRO in helping to destroy the party. I think that's probably very shocking for people who don't know the history--the ruthlessness with which they pursued the Panthers, going as far as to assassinate people like Fred Hampton. You got former FBI and Los Angeles Police Department officers on camera, and they speak candidly and unrepentantly about why they pursued the Panthers. I'm wondering how you were able to get them to do that, for one--but also why they saw the Panthers as so dangerous.

IT WAS something that we really wanted to do. We really wanted to have former FBI agents and former police talk about the Panthers, but we didn't want it to all be from one side. So it's not even just that we worked hard on it--it was part of the concept. Do we have cops? Can we get a cop? Can we get another cop? It was something we struggled to do. And I think it really helps the film to see their opinion.

As one of them said, "We looked at them as terrorists." J. Edgar Hoover said that the Panthers were the number one threat to the internal security of the U.S. That means this group was really public enemy number one. As one cop says in the film, "That was all I needed to know. Tell me that, then I'm going after them." And that's what they did.

THAT'S INTERESTING, because at the same time, you really humanize the Panthers beyond the sort of glamorization of their image. On the other hand, they're 17- or 18- or 19-year-olds. Yes, they had 68 offices and a lot of influence, but how dangerous were they actually? Was this overblown or was it the actual politics of the Black Panther Party that scared the FBI?

I THINK J. Edgar Hoover, who was head of the FBI and reigned for over 50 years, looked at it as his charge to maintain the status quo in the United States. Any change was bad to Hoover. That was how he looked at his job. The Panthers were advocating a radical change, so he targeted the Panthers. I don't think they were anywhere near as dangerous as he said they were, or thought they were, but that was J. Edgar Hoover. That's who he was.

DO YOU think there were also political reasons for the split in the party? That it wasn't just because the FBI was stoking this feud between Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, but there were other reasons for why they split internally?

I THINK that there were other reasons, but I'm sure the FBI stoked the flames. I mean, one of the things that we were able to do in the film is use actual FBI documents that we obtained through the Freedom of Information Act in which they're actually saying, "We have to figure out how to pit Eldridge Cleaver against Huey Newton. We have to figure out how to set one against the other."

So they sent fake letters--they sent a letter that was supposedly from Eldridge Cleaver to Huey Newton, denigrating Huey, or the other way around. And it should be said that Eldridge was in Algeria. He fled the country because he was wanted. There was no way that they could see each other and talk, so they were more apt to believe these rumors.

I think the FBI was really essential in fanning the flames of this feud. But also, there were some real differences in how they saw the party.

At this point, Huey Newton was saying, "We're getting murdered and killed by the police. The police have targeted us, and it's devastating the party. We need to back up and work more with the community, with our health care programs, with our breakfast for children programs, the social programs." He called it "survival pending revolution"--figuring out how we can survive so they can be part of this revolution.

Eldridge was in Algeria and wasn't seeing day to day what was happening to the party. He still wanted the party to be this very upfront, militant, gun-toting Panthers. But at that point, there's this real kind of division of ideology within the party. Some people followed Eldridge, and some people followed Huey.

ON THAT note, I'm sure a lot of people who are excited to finally see the Panthers on film are also probably grappling with the fact that Elaine Brown, the Panthers' former chairperson, has really slammed the film, particularly I think around its portrayal of Huey Newton. What do you make of those criticisms?

EVERYBODY HAS a right to their opinion, but Huey Newton's problems--drug problems and other problems--are well documented. The film has no narration; we only use the words of former Panthers who really talk about Huey's problems. I stand by the film.

IN THAT regard, I think if we're really talking about the parallels between today and then, we have to critically assess what worked and what didn't.

RIGHT, hopefully that's one of the things that the film can help people to understand--what worked. And look: The Panthers were incredible at organizing and galvanizing young people and creating this sense of change and movement and positivity as they were able to build with young people. On the other hand, they were infiltrated completely by the FBI and local police departments, and there were internal fights that have to be avoided to make progress.

I KNOW the film has been widely lauded by critics, but you've also had the opportunity to speak in front of live audiences in New York City. How have people been responding to the film?

THE REACTION to the film has been just incredible. We've been doing incredible showings at Film Forum down in the Village; we opened at Magic Johnson down in Harlem on a Friday. This Friday night sold out. We opened in Boston last weekend; we sold out there Saturday night.

We've been getting standing ovations, and we're getting a mix of old people and young people coming, and people want to hang around in the lobby and talk about the film, talk about what they've seen and how it's relevant to today and today's movements and where we are today. I think that hopefully is one of the most important things that's coming out of the screenings that we've had so far.

You should let people know that they can go to, and all the screening information for all over the country is in there. The trailer for the film is there. And there's also a list of speakers that we're going to have.

A lot of times, not only do we preview the film, but we have former Panthers, Panther lawyers and others who come and speak. I'm going to be at every opening weekend around the country. So hopefully it creates some real discussion about the Panthers and also what it means for us today.

Transcription by Rebecca Anshell Song

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