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Huey Newton, known Black Panther leader

Stanley Nelson, documentary film maker is riding the tide of  timing, good timing. His new documentary, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” is showing at festivals — it premiered at Sundance last month as the nation demonstrated and protested  over police killings of African-American men in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island. The moment is right for a documentary history of the Panthers, with its images of armed black men patrolling the streets and walking onto the floor of the California Legislature brave and knowledgable. That’s what made them so powerful and so feared by the system. They would boldly carry weapons and repeat the Bill of Rights; “We have the right to bear arms.”

The film certainly seemed to fill in some of the gaps inserting itself into the delicate socio-political fabric of today’s uneasy relations between Blacks and the police. Its New York premiere on January 30  as the opening-night feature of the Documentary Fortnight series at the Museum of Modern Art (a theatrical release will follow in the fall).  Nelson confesses that he did not consciously set out to make a film that was about today, although it is evident that many things the Panthers were fighting for remain issues today. Police brutality is just  the tip of the iceberg. If you have any real insight then you are able to see that it’s the systematic racism that is responsible for all the symptoms like  failed educational equity  and opportunity, substandard housing, employment and the general lack respect in  general for Blacks in this country. The film resonates and connects with people today of all colors race and ethnicities because the truth is undeniable.

At 63 Mr. Nelson, has produced a distinguished series of documentaries about the black experience in America, from “The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords” to “The Murder of Emmett Till” to “Freedom Riders,” which won two Emmy Awards in 2011. He’s also done  films that aren’t so heavy yet equally as important like Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise Your Voice, about the powerful  all female a capella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, as a performance ensemble rooted in African American history and culture. He’s also been awarded noted  honors along the way, like a National Humanities Medal and a MacArthur fellowship, who unlike his contemporaries like Ken Burns and Alex Gibney does  not share their notoriety or fame even though his subject matter is certainly of equal importance and the quality of his films are comparable.

I’d dared say that it has to do with the fact that he’s a Black man making films about Black life. Still is successes are what they are. He tackles each film project with great focus incorporating all that is required to accomplish the project. That includes  fund-raising and research, and patience.  Each  film can take many years to complete. Even commercial films can take up to 16 years to acquire all that is necessary to fund it even with celebrity names attached.  Nelson’s

According to Nelson the formal proposal for “Panthers” was written  seven years ago however it rooted in his soul in his youth.  He recalls that he was 15, living in New York  city and it was  1966  when the Panthers emerged. ,And because the Panthers were talking about problems that in large part had to do with Black lives in the North, Nelson says he was naturally attracted to them. To the idea of them and  clearly reminisces the vulnerability of youth, when he adds,   “they just looked so cool.”


Fred Hampton, Black Panther, leader and educator in Chicago  speaking to the press

It was a   $1 movie on Broadway that rekindled Nelson’s interest in the  Panthers and shaped his future work. The theater happened to be showing “The Murder of Fred Hampton,” a documentary about the murder by Chicago police  of a charismatic young Panther leader. “The film was so powerful in its effect on  Nelson that he became enthralled  with the idea of filmmaking or the power of film.

Hampton’s death during a nighttime raid on his apartment is one of the many stories squeezed into the nearly two-hour “Panthers” that will probably be unfamiliar to a good share of the audience, but it takes those of us Nelson’s age back to the glory days when we witnessed fearless black youth face the tyranny of a racist society that continued to oppress us. The film outlines the Black Panther Party’s history from its founding in Oakland, Calif., and its early 1960s heyday through its decline and eventual disintegration in the ’70s and early ’80s. There are portraits of celebrated leaders like Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton, and copious evidence of the F.B.I’s covert campaign to destroy the group, but much of the film’s interest and emotional impact comes from remembrances of lesser-known Panther alumni  survivors like Jamal Joseph and Wayne Pharr.


        Eldridge Cleaver

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Kathleen Cleaver and Eldridge Cleaver with their newborn baby

Some of the more unsavory aspects of Panthers lore, like Cleaver’s rape conviction and his incendiary writing about rape in “Soul on Ice,” are not covered.

Nelson’s film  balances the delicate facts, truths and distinctions around Eldridge Cleaver once thought of as a man of immense  intelligence to Huey Newton, the handsome charismatic leader and Bobby Seale which was or was not a college student. It reveals the Panthers as if  they were an entity  a person with strengths and weaknesses., That way it’s easier to understand that the Panthers carried guns; that they got into shootouts with cops that they also had breakfast programs. Yes, the cops were manipulated to attack them. ANd finally , yes the police murdered them in cold blood.  All this is revealed without narration.


Female members of the Black Panther Party Oakland California

Nelson has established himself as  a historical documentarian, and his straightforward application of research-based approach is compared to that of recognized work of Mr. Burns. All films are hard to make but documentaries are perhaps more difficult because they’re not commercial and often lack the sex, glamour and contemporary mix of urban appeal. Because of that they require a skilled storyteller to reveal the crux of the story that is based in truth and the freedom of creativity lies in the ability to release the truth of each story.

If you consider that the  timing of Nelson’s film is good you must realize that it is at the expense of the lives of many innocent black men  both past and current history which made the feel even more important.

Hopefully as you will go see this film, which recently opened the Pan African Film Festival February 5, you will embrace the strength, the passion and the good intentions of the Black men and women that took it upon themselves to stand up and stare down the American government even if it meant looking into a barrel of a lethal weapon.  The PAFF continues through Presidents Day, Monday February 16 in Los Angeles, at the Baldwin Hill Mall.  Go to Paff.org and  go check it out!

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