How lucky we are to live among prolific documentarians who, while memorializing our past, can bridge its relevancy to our present and give a sense of hope, direction and clarity for our future. Among the many is filmmaker, director and producer Stanley Nelson, whose latest production, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” is making its first New York City theatrical appearance Wednesday, Sept. 2 to Tuesday, Sept. 15, at the Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St., west of Sixth Avenue. The first showing is at 12:30 p.m., and thereafter at 2:45, 5, 7:15 and 9:40. A different guest speaker will join Nelson after each 7:15 p.m. showing for a short question and answer session. Appearing will be former Panther members, including Kathleen Cleaver (via Skype), wife of Eldridge Cleaver.
The production will screen in movie theaters all over the country, from Chicago to Portland, Maine, and even Woodstock, N.Y., and a one-week showing will take place at the Magic Johnson Theatre, located at 124th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, beginning Sept. 11.
Everyone in the country, and especially our community, should see this film as a reminder and refresher of how far we’ve come and how much ground we’ve lost, and to galvanize our thinking on what actions to take next.
This film is not Nelson’s first to document the atrocities that Black people in the United States have endured, both individually and as a society or culture, that have characterized and permeated the fabric of Black history. Some of his previous films are “Freedom Summer,” “Freedom Riders,” “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple” and “The Murder of Emmett Till.” However, “The Black Panthers” may be his most dynamic. What began as a historical piece on the Black Panthers and their stance against police brutality is now a pivotal piece on how history has repeated itself. Or could it be that this particular part of history has never abated?
“The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” documents how the Panthers sought to change the course of history by snatching the covers off the conspiracies, lies, torments, brutalities and injustices inflicted upon a group of people whose only crime was wanting to create a life of peace and equality for Black people in America.
I was fortunate enough to have a one-on-one interview with Nelson while sitting on the beach at the Inkwell, in Martha’s Vineyard. (See, it’s not all fun and games. Serious stuff does happen.) There, while sipping on ice water, Nelson talked candidly about the documentary. Beaming with excitement, he commented on how well the documentary has been received at film festivals across the country and around the world. From North Carolina to Rwanda, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” has received numerous accolades and awards, including the Sundance Film Festival Award, in Park City, Utah, during its premiere.
“Seven years ago, there hadn’t been a comprehensive film,” said Nelson. “It was just a look back at the Panthers. However, with the highly publicized killing of Black people, the story of the Panthers has become more relevant. In 1966, the Black Panther Movement began as a way to combat police violence. It’s incredible that the issue is again at the forefront. I started out making a historical film and ended up making a contemporary iconic piece.”
Footage for the film includes more than 300 photographs, interviews from those intimately involved and civil rights heroes such as the late Julian Bond, as well as those on the outside who were looking in. Members of the Panthers’ rank and file speak about what it meant to be a Panther and, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, the film reveals records confirming then head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hover, gave the order to destroy the Black Panthers “at any costs.”
As a testament to the belief that if you really set your mind on a goal, a way will be made to get there, information came to Nelson from all walks of life. One such instance occurred during a talk Nelson gave after the screening of “The Murder of Emmitt Till” at the Schomburg Center. A gentleman from the audience approached Nelson and stated that he had a videotape buried deep in his closet, the contents of which he had no knowledge. The words “Black Panther” were written on the label. He offered the tape to Nelson. The footage turned out to be a visual account of one of the most perilous moments of the movement, recorded when it was at its height—the split between the Huey Newton faction and Eldridge Cleaver faction.
Interviews with cops, lawyers and former FBI agents; interviews with Jamal Joseph and Emory Douglas; never before seen conversations between Newton and Cleaver, which caused the split; and accounts of the Los Angeles shootout between Panther members and the cops, which went on for five hours, with different takes on what occurred from news reporters, are all highlighted in the film. By the 1970s, the movement was largely run by women, and those such as Elaine Brown and Flores Forbs are also featured in the film. It is a comprehensive look at a movement that was as powerful in its time as it is prolific today.
Nelson’s motivation for taking on this subject can be best described in his director’s statement, found at www.theblackpanthers.com, the documentary’s accompanying website, which I highly recommend you check out. There, he states in part that he “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. In particular, I wanted to offer a unique and engaging opportunity to examine a very complex moment in time that challenges the cold, oversimplified narrative of a Panther who is prone to violence and consumed with anger. Thoroughly examining the history of the Black Panther Party allowed me to sift through the fragmented perceptions and find the core driver of the movement: the Black Panther Party emerged out of a love for their people and a devotion to empowering them. This powerful display of the human spirit, rooted in heart, is what compelled me to communicate this story accurately.”
Nothing more can be said than to visit the website, see the film, support the cause and stay conscious.
Until next week … kisses.