Stanley Nelson Interview: "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution" Opens Tomorrow

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The Black Star News' Elizabeth Alvarez and Milton Allimadi caught up recently with award-winning documentarian Stanley Nelson about his new film "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution." Nelson’s film explores the everyday life of rank-and-file members of America’s Black revolutionary party and features Panther leaders such as Kathleen Cleaver, Elaine Brown and Emory Douglas. The heightened exposure of police brutality against people of color along with the rising movement Black Lives Matter, demands for reforming the policing and criminal justice system and the use of modern social media as a form of self-defense, make the history of the Black Panther Party a point of reflection. "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution" opens at Film Forum Wednesday, September 2nd  and at AMC Magic Johnson Harlem 9 on Friday, September 11th.  The interview has been edited for clarity.

BSN: In terms of conducting struggle are there lessons for today’s youth. For example the young folk that are at the forefront of protesting against police brutality?

Nelson: Yeah, sure. I think there are a number of lessons for young people today. And you know those are good and bad. I think that it’s important to understand that the Panthers were young, these were really young people, a lot of them were teenagers when they started a movement that we’re still talking about 50 years later, and I think those are important things to understand. You can make change. I think especially for today. The Panthers came out of the Civil Rights’ Movement and the anti war movement. Those were all things that were happening and the Panthers, and young people, had seen change being made, they had seen the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, they had seen change happen, so they understood that change can happen. I think it’s harder for young people today because we haven’t had those kinds of movements, we haven’t seen those kinds of positive changes and movements succeed like the Panther movement had succeeded. But obviously it’s a great time, obviously we see young people being engaged and really pushing for change and I think that’s important. I also think that there are [also] negative lessons to learn. We see the Panthers being subverted by the FBI and by infiltration and by those things and we also see the personal conflicts, personality pieces that can destroy a movement or anything that tries to do something. We can’t let personalities get in the way.

BSN: Based on what you know, and everything you learned from your research, were there some things that the Black Panthers could have done better or differently that could have ensured their survival?

Nelson: That’s a hard question, you know, I’m not sure. I don’t want to speculate on what the Panthers could have done differently. I just don’t know. You have to understand that the COINTELPRO, the FBI program that attacked the Panthers was totally unknown. Nobody knew that COINTELPRO existed and even more importantly, nobody knew that the FBI would do that kind of thing, you know. Would do these kinds of dirty tricks that would send one group against the other. Setting husband against wife, wife against husband, you know. It’s hard to say what could have been done differently. I think that there were also a lot of personality conflicts. I think one of the things about the Panthers was, in the leadership you had this incredible mix of people, you really did. Eldridge’s Soul on Ice was in the top 10 Best Seller list from the New York Times, great writer, great speaker. You have Bobby Seale, who was a great speaker and a great personality. Huey, Kathleen Cleaver, Elaine Brown, you know, you had Emory Douglas, the artist. You have these great personalities, but a lot of times when you have these great personalities you have great and strong conflicts among the personalities. How many bands have we seen get together and create great music and then split up, because they can’t-- Whatever brought them together to make this music also drove them apart. So it’s hard for me to speculate on what the Panthers could’ve done differently, I just don’t know.

BSN: A lot of the media have drawn comparisons between the Black Panther Party and of course the Black Lives Matter movement. Are there lessons that Black Lives Matter could learn from the Panther’s movement?

Nelson: Yeah, I think there are a number of lessons that can be learned. One is to understand that you know, that there are forces that will do anything to destroy you and infiltrate and do those kind of things. You have to be vigilant about those things, you have to kind of avoid the personality conflict, I think that’s really what’s really important. I think that one of the best things the Panthers were great at is manipulation and use of the media. And I think Black Lives Matter, they’re doing pretty good (laughs) at kind of, you know, seizing the media and getting their message across. But that’s really important to do. It’s a whole different scene now, because there is so much more media. Media is much more different. When the Panthers came up there were three networks on TV and you might have two or three local stations and that was it. You know now you have hundreds of TV stations, and different social media things that you have going on, so it’s a whole different story.

BSN: Do you think that the Panthers message of armed self-defense is justifiable and resonating with today’s youth?

Nelson: You’re trying to get me arrested here (laughs)? No, I don’t think that picking up a gun is the solution. No, I don’t think that’s the solution. For many reasons, some of them obvious, you’re going to always be outgunned. How’s it going to end up? It’s going to always end up badly, because you don’t have the manpower, womanpower, you don’t have the guns. When they had the shootout in L. A., something that we didn’t talk about was speculation because we didn’t want to have speculation was that they were about to roll in tanks. That was the next phase for the police in L.A. So you know, I would never say pick up the gun. I do think one of the things that is interesting though, is that at the same time, now we’re seeing this kind of movement all over the country for open-carry laws for guns starting again. And you know I think it’s interesting. What does that mean if you get a group of Black men together, Black men and women, to also patrol with guns, I think, you know, the fallacy-- you saw what happened when the Panthers, as soon as they started carrying guns, the revoked the law in California. It was like ‘whoa, wait a minute, we better rethink this,’ and hopefully these laws can be rethought until we get to that point. Because somebody’s going to say ‘why don’t we carry guns?’

BSN: The open-carry law was revoked because of the Black Panthers, right? So someone today, who would agree with the Black Panther ideology, would say, ‘it’s our right to carry arms, also.’

Nelson: Yeah. I’m surprised that we haven’t seen that already. Because you know we’ve had a number of states in the U.S. say once again you can carry a gun, as long as it’s in the open. That’s how the Panthers started. I hope that that doesn’t happen again because at this point it would lead to violence. You know, I think one of the things, one of the saddest things that happened in one of our first screenings was that a guy stood up at the Q&A and said, “You couldn’t have that today because if you had Black people carrying guns out in the open, there would be a shootout with the police the first day.”
And I think that in some ways, what does that say? It’s worse off now than it was 50 years ago. You know, the Panthers patrolling the police in Oakland did not lead to any gun violence. There were no shootouts with the police back then.

BSN: Given the persistence of the kind of issues the Panthers dealt with in the 60’s with police violence against Black folk, particularly Black males, and now you have Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, all of these endless cases, and the police don’t seem to learn any lessons from each incident, or even don’t seem to be deterred by the protests. Do you have any thoughts on what a solution might be?

Nelson: No. I think that to keep calling it to the attention of the nation, I think that, as horrific as those deaths have been, you’re hearing this discussed in a way that was never discussed before, partially because of the cameras that have been focused on the police. You have seen police start to tell a lie about what happened, ‘oh he had a gun,’ ‘oh, I was dragged,’ or this and that, and you see the video and it’s like ‘oh, no, you were just lying.’ I think that we have, no doubt, if there hadn’t been cameras on them, in those situations, the police would’ve and have gotten away with the lies for years and years and years. And so I think that at least we’re discussing things. Hopefully, this discussion will lead to change. But I think that what’s important is that we understand that the police are the tip of the iceberg. The police are there to keep Black people in line, you know. If our only problem was police brutality, hey, I could live with that. But our problem, the police is just a symptom of the racism in this country. We have schools that are terrible, housing that’s terrible, unemployment -- we don’t get equal pay. We’re seeing over and over racist examples of where a lot of people in this country are. I think we need to figure out how to make fundamental changes, and hopefully, those will come at some point. What kind of country do you want to live in?

BSN: Now, in terms of the timing of Vanguard of the Revolution, and given the current environment of heightened attention toward police violence and protests, the Black Lives Matter movement, the timing could not have been better, it seems. What do you think?

Nelson: Well, it’s a sad thing. It’s very sad. But yeah, the timing couldn’t be better. When we made the film, we were kind of nervous about some of the reactions to the film, that there would be people who stood up in the audience and say how dare you say anything good about the Panthers? We haven’t had that at all. It’s very hard to stand up and say ‘oh, the Panthers were just, you know, lying, or it was just a fallacy.’ No, I think people were really understanding that this has been going on for way over 50 years, and what the discussion should be, is ‘what’s the historical relationship of police with African Americans?’ Well, it started out as the police were slave-catchers. Then the police have been there to keep us in our place you know. That what the police were there for, the police are not friendly officer Joe on the corner, no. The police have been occupying force in so many Black communities, and it’s up to the police to change.

BSN: Have you thought about a documentary about Malcolm X....or any other notables?

Nelson: There have been a number of documentaries on Malcolm. You know, one of the things that interests me is really movements of people. I’m a little more interested in movements of people than kind of the great man, great woman theory of history. I’ve tried to stay clear as much as I could of films that had this one central hero or heroine, as like ‘this is the person that changed history.’ Because I think you know what happens is, for young people especially, they learn about Martin Luther King, Black History Month in school and they learn about Martin Luther King. But Martin Luther King was this saint. Martin Luther King was an angel that came down from heaven, and saved us all. But what it says is that you can’t be that. I’m not Martin Luther King, you’re not Martin Luther King, so you can’t really do anything because you’re not this great man or great woman. I think that it’s important to understand that Martin Luther King got his power from the people that stood behind him. If Martin Luther King went marching to Selma by himself, he would still be marching. I think it’s important we understand that. In the film, we’re really interested in telling the story of the rank and file. It’s called the story of the rank and file of the Panthers, the everyday person. ‘Why did you join?’ ‘What did you do?’ ‘Why did you leave?’ That’s what we pushed really hard to do.  We have a whole section of people who talk about after the actions in Sacramento about why they joined. ‘What did you do everyday?’ ‘We sold papers, we did this, we did that.’ We were able to find these incredible letters that were wrote to Huey as they were leaving the Panthers. And they would tell in their letters why they’re leaving, why they felt it was time to go.

BSN: Elaine Brown had a couple of things to say about your movie, do you have any comment on that?

Nelson: Everybody has a right to their opinion -- so many people come to the Panthers with their own opinion. Everybody knows something about the Panthers, or think they know. And if you don’t show this, then the film is inaccurate. I’m very, very, very happy with the film. Maybe 100 Panthers have seen the film, and I think we’ve had two who were critical. I’ll take those odds. Those are good odds for me.

BSN: Can you tell us about any of your next projects?

Nelson: Yeah, yeah. The Black Panthers is the first in a series we’re doing for PBS, very loosely related films, the series is called “America Revisited.” The first film was on the Black Panther Party. The second film that we’re doing in on historically Black colleges and universities, which we just started now.  And the third film is on the Atlantic slave trade, and the slave trade as a business, a global business and how the global business of the slave trade changed the world, as we know it, and it changed everything.

BSN: What did you find most interesting while making the film, that you didn’t know of the Panthers that you discovered from the research while making the film?

Nelson: I discovered many things I didn’t know. One, how young the Panthers were, that this was basically a youth movement, that they were basically teenagers, that women were over 50 percent of the Panther membership by the early 70’s. How much J. Edgar Hoover targeted the Panthers and they documented this. There are documents that exist. It’s not one of those kind of rumors that Black people have among themselves that J. Edgar Hoover destroyed the Panthers. There’s documents that you can get from the FBI that he’s very clear that he wants to destroy the Panthers and that he’ll do anything to destroy the Panthers. All of those things I think were new. The other thing for us as film makers is that, we just found so many stills and pictures and footage that no one has ever seen before. The Panthers were very, this kind of sexy group and real bunch of young film makers and photographers, Black and White, just kind of latched on to the Panthers and took these incredible photos of the Panthers, not only looking militaristic, but also them behind the scenes, cooking and living, and playing with their kids, and hugging --the men and the women, the love that they shared, this is a whole other side in pictures that we didn’t know existed that we found. Incredible footage, the whole split between Huey and Eldridge, we searched and searched until we found the actual tape of their argument that causes the split.

BSN: Any final thoughts?

Nelson: I’ve been making films for almost 40 years now, and this is the first film I’ve made that has had any real theatrical distribution, so we’re going to be at the Film Forum starting this 2nd of September, at Magic Johnson Theatre which is great because it’s my neighborhood theatre, I live in Harlem. Then we’re going to 20 cities around the country, which for me is really exciting. I just haven’t really had that experience. I’ve made films that have been in a lot of festivals, but this is going to be like at a theatre. Like you can go at three o’clock in the afternoon and buy some popcorn and go see it. I’m just really excited.

BSN: Well, we hope you continue to make serious movies.

Nelson: (Laughs) I’m trying to. I’m also trying to make movies that entertain.

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