In The Mix

A Persistent Struggle

Black Panthers doc resonates with present-day themes.

Jeff Weinstock
  • Panthers on parade at Free Huey rally in Defermery Park Oakland, July 28, 1968

    Photo courtesy of Stephen Shames
  • Black Panthers from Sacramento Free Huey Rally Bobby Hutton Memorial Park in Oakland, CA, 1969

    Photo courtesy of Pirkle Jones and RuthMarion Baruch
  • Eldridge Cleaver, Berkeley

    Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Blankfort
  • Fred Hampton at Dirksen Federal Building

    Photo courtesy of Paul Sequeira
  • Director Stanley Nelson

    Courtesy of Sam Aleshinloye
  • Women drilling with Panther flags

    Photo courtesy of Pirkle Jones and RuthMarion Baruch

"There's never one reason," documentarian Stanley Nelson says of what prompts him to embark on a film.

His recent release, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, had several.

"I thought it was a story that people didn't know," says Nelson, who wrote, directed and produced the documentary. "There were so many great characters and so many people who were still alive who could tell the story. There's great music, great footage, great stills from that era."

All of those elements are on display in Vanguard, a comprehensive account of the Black Panther Party's run from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s at the front of the black power movement — and in the crosshairs of J Edgar Hoover's FBI.

After a brief stay in theaters last fall, it premiered in February on PBS as part of the network's Independent Lens documentary series (it will re-air throughout the month and is available online).

The film adds to Nelson's career-long probing of the African-American experience, a catalog of work that includes Freedom Riders (for which he was awarded two Emmys, including exceptional merit in nonfiction filmmaking) and The Murder of Emmett Till (for which he won a directing Emmy).

Of the many films previously made about the Panthers, Nelson says that none portrayed the full life span of the party and illuminated all the events that led to its creation, expansion and eventual dissolution. "There had been films that the Panthers were part of," Nelson says, "there had been films about individual Panthers, but there hadn't been a film that tried to tell the rise and fall."

That's a complicated, heated story, and Nelson worked to enlighten without lecturing. The wealth of archival material in the film — including news footage, once-secret memos and home movies — speaks for itself, as when Hoover seems to dismiss the notion of police abuse by saying, "Justice is incidental to law and order."

The film took seven years to make, much of it spent chasing after funding, typically a dreadful practice that Nelson says benefited the process this time around, since it resulted in the movie's most absorbing element: fresh interviews with a slew of former Panthers.

"Most of the time, I'll tell you how horrible it is trying to raise money and taking that long to make the film," Nelson says. "But the good part is, you have more time. You have time to be around people who might say the first year, 'I don't want to be in the film.' By the second they may say, 'Well, maybe,' and by the third year they'll say, 'Yes.'"

One of the many non-Panthers to offer insights and recollections is Stanford University history professor Clayborne Carson, director of the school's Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute.

On screen, Carson is critical of Panther leaders whose shortcomings disabled the party internally while the FBI's machinations sabotaged it from without. Still, he hopes audiences will recognize the lineage that reaches from the Panthers to today's Black Lives Matter movement

"That black-radical tradition is what I hope young people would take from the film," he says. "Here was a group 50 years ago that was concerned about police brutality, mass incarceration, poverty, employment — all the problems that still plague the black community. And they were so dedicated that they were willing to give their lives. That should be a source of inspiration now."

Nelson ends the film with the demands listed in the Panthers' original 10-point program, beginning with "We want freedom," and ending with "land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace."

"We wanted to leave that in your memory without hitting you over the head and saying, 'These things still have not been achieved,'" he says. "That's pretty obvious to any thinking person. It's the continued struggle.

"Hopefully it helps to validate some of the things the Panthers were fighting for — these things, they're not crazy. We're still fighting for them today."