Stanley Nelson talks real Black Panthers, ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Part 1

JORDANNAH ELIZABETH | 3/4/2021, midnight
The award-winning, Harlem-based filmmaker Stanley Nelson has been making groundbreaking documentaries about Civil Rights and the Black experience for over ...
Stanley Nelson Corey Nickols photo

The award-winning, Harlem-based filmmaker Stanley Nelson has been making groundbreaking documentaries about Civil Rights and the Black experience for over 30 years. He has travailed through the painful depths of the history of the Black struggle, telling poignant, accurate and grounded stories that are eye-opening and key references for anyone who wants to learn more about the roots of America through the understanding and documentation of Black storytellers.

Nelson’s Emmy award-winning three-part documentary series “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” was released in 2015 but remains to be a sturdy and powerful account of the Black Panther movement’s rise and fall. Now, with the emergence of the 2021 feature film “Judas and the Black Messiah” starring Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield, Nelson wants to continue the conversation about the Black Panthers, citing the true story and the relevance of both films.

We spoke to Nelson in this two-part conversation about his thoughts on the history of Black movements and his deeply informed perspective on the progress and continued perils of Black America.

AmNews: What do you think about the dramatization of Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers in the new feature “Judas and the Black Messiah”?

Stanley Nelson: I think any attention that’s called to the Black Panther movement and Fred Hampton’s life is great. I think because it’s a Hollywood film that it’s reaching a lot more people and a different demographic than “Vanguard of the Revolution.” I think that it’s a small part of the Black Panther story and I think we tell a fuller story in “Vanguard.”

AmNews: “Vanguard of the Revolution” was released in 2015 which was not long after Ferguson and the same year of the Baltimore Uprising along with other post-modern civil rights events, how are you feeling about the current social climate compared to then?

Nelson: I think what’s really important to understand is that police brutality and the killing of Black people has been going on for a long time and the difference today is that we have cameras on our phones and people so they can film it. I think there was a lot more attention to the murder of George Floyd by white folks especially that this needs to stop. Whether there’s a lasting and substantial change in the policing of African American communities remains to be seen.

AmNews: What was your motivation to make “Vanguard”? Did you want to specifically reach the Black community with the story you worked hard to tell?

Nelson: I think with all my films, I made them with African American people in mind. I think by telling African Americans something they don’t know, I’m naturally telling white folks something that they don’t know. “Vanguard” came out of my experience of being a 15-year-old in New York City when the Black Panthers began, so I was their target audience, young Black men in major cities. I think the image and interpretation of what the Black Panthers were became very different from what I knew as a young guy, so I wanted to tell the story in an honest and revealing way.

AmNews: What do you think of the title “Judas and the Black Messiah”? Do you think it’s a fair representation of what happened to Fred Hampton?

Nelson: I think that if you know the story you understand the title. J. Edgar Hoover wrote a memo that he was afraid of the rising of a Black messiah and that Fred Hampton might be that person, and I think, obviously, William O’Neal was a Judas, so I think it’s a title that works.

AmNews: Do you admire the work of Black Lives Matter? Do you think there can be more done in regards to movement mobilization and effectiveness?

Nelson: I really admire the work of Black Lives Matter and the mostly young people who got out there and marched and are getting the word out and are not relenting. I think that BLM learned a lot from the Panthers about what to do and what not to do. I think Black Lives Matter is purposely a headless movement. There’s not an identifiable head that is doing all the press conferences and that is a lesson learned from the Black Panthers because when their leaders went down, in many ways, the Black Panther movement fell apart.

AmNews: Do you see the seeds of progress for Black people in 2021?

Nelson: I definitely see progress across the board. I’ve done a number of films on the Civil Rights movement. If you look at the United States in the early 1950s and ’60s, there’s a huge change. The Freedom Riders were beaten and almost killed for sitting together on a bus. Are we anywhere close to where we want to be? No! I would be crazy to say that, but there has been change. We had a Black president and a vice president that went to Howard University. But we’re coming from being enslaved and being three-fifths of a human, so the change is also relative.

Has there been the amount of change that we thought there would be in 1966 when the Panther movement started? No.

Stanley Nelson has a new 2021 film, “Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy,” which is now available on Netflix.