Editor’s note: Back in February, we held an event with filmmaker Stanley Nelson to talk about his now Emmy-nominated film, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. The film sparked the No. 1 trending Twitter hashtag—#BlackPanthersPBS—in the world on the night it premiered on PBS’ Independent Lens. It is also Independent Lens’ highest rated and most-streamed film. Below is the transcript from this Prince Theater event, where Nelson was interviewed by Norris West, director of strategic communications for the Annie E. Casey Foundation. If you haven’t seen the film, you can watch the trailer below.
Vince Stehle (MIF executive director): At Media Impact Funders, we are very familiar with Stanley Nelson—we were honored to present him with our Henry Hampton award in 2004 for his heroic film, The Murder of Emmett Till, which sparked reinvestigation of case of Emmett Till, the 15-year-old boy murdered in 1955 for whistling at a white woman. In the announcement of the reinvestigation, the U.S. Justice Department cited the presence of witnesses unearthed in the film as a significant factor.
In 2012, we presented Stanley with a lifetime achievement award recognizing his continuing body of work with films like Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer. We’ve run out of awards to give him! But when we saw this film at Sundance last year, we knew we had to find a way to showcase this film for our network. The timing of this event could really not have been better, falling the day after such an incredible broadcast premiere on PBS last night. We hope you had a chance to watch the film. I think it’s available to be viewed online, but you can always buy it, too, so think about doing that. It was a real blockbuster—the first time I’ve seen a documentary take the top spot trending on Twitter, not just in the United States but internationally.
For our discussion tonight, we have Norris West, Director of Strategic Communications at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, here to interview Stanley and lead us in conversation. Annie E. Casey Foundation has a long history of shining a bright spotlight on issues of race and justice in America and Norris has a deep background in journalism and communications, as you can see from his bio in the program. I think most notably, he spent more than two decades at the Baltimore Sun, covering the local scene in a community where, as we know, racial issues continue to demand attention. Norris is also a native of Philadelphia, so thanks for coming home to participate in our program tonight.
Norris West: It’s an honor for me to be here sharing the stage with Stanley Nelson. I’m excited to be here. This is my hometown. I grew up in West Philly and moved to North Philly when I was 10, just south of Temple University. My wife lived on 29th and Cecil B. Moore (Columbia at the time) right around the corner from the headquarters of the Black Panther Party. She was there and she saw the big incident when Frank Rizzo’s police department raided the place and strip-searched the Panthers right in the middle of the street. So that was a traumatic time and it was a point in time and it had an impact. In my community, the Black Panthers were something everybody talked about. I was growing up in ’60s and ’70s and a lot of my friends were attracted to them. I was attracted to them, although I never became a Black Panther. It was part of our environment.
When I heard there was going to be a film, I was excited but concerned about who was going to tell the story and would it be done right. Then I heard Stanley Nelson was doing the film and I became even more excited.
Stanley Nelson: And more scared. (laughter)
NW: No, my fears were dissipated. I knew it was in very, very good hands. I’m really delighted that he has been the person to pioneer this because it really is important that films like this are done right. Documentaries have the power to inspire and I want to talk a little bit about that as we have our conversation.
I want to go into his bio a little more because he has such a rich and deep history of filmmaking that stretches more than two decades. He has done tremendous work. His body of work is nothing short of phenomenal and prolific. His documentaries have provoked thought and action. We heard the example with Emmett Till and it shows the power of documentary to do that when it’s done right.
Stanley, the Black Panthers were a social and cultural phenomenon in 1960s and 1970s. That was a long time ago. Why this film? Why now?
SN: I started the film eight years ago, we finished last year and premiered at Sundance, and spent the year at festivals, culminating in last night’s PBS broadcast. When I started the film eight years ago, in some ways I was like you. I was a young kid when the Panthers started and I had never seen anything like it. I also felt that the Panthers story had not been told, and as time went on the Panthers story changed. It wasn’t the story we knew from the late 60’s and early 70’s. I wanted to tell the story as it was seen back then.
Leading up to the broadcast last night I’ve been doing lots of interviews—in documentary film you don’t say no to anyone. If someone has a blog and they want to interview you at 6 in the morning, sure I’m up at 6. So I’ve been saying the same thing and I’m going to try to say different things tonight. They might be stupid, but they’ll be different. I thought the Panthers story was still really relevant. Eight years ago, I thought the story was relevant. I thought so many things the Panthers were fighting for hadn’t been realized. I also should say, as a filmmaker, there are other reasons. The Panthers are sexy. There were a lot of Panthers still around looking back at their history after 40 something years. For some it was the most important thing they ever did in their lives. You get that piece of people when they’re talking about something. We tried to make the film largely about the rank and file, the people you never hear of. A lot of those people had never had the chance to tell their stories. Nobody asked them, “What did you do back in 1967?” So I wanted to get that story. The other things as a filmmaker, because they are so sexy at the time, they were really covered by the media. I remembered that they were covered and there had to be great footage out there and still pictures and the music. We wanted the music to really bring you back into that time, where you heard music about change and revolution and black is beautiful. All these things made me think, this is a great film. People asked, “Why didn’t anyone else make a film about the Panthers?” I tried to answer that question in the first year, and then I realized, I don’t know. I have no idea why somebody didn’t do something.
NW: Many of us watched the Super Bowl halftime show and didn’t realize you had that kind of promotional budget. What did you think?
SN: I don’t know for sure if Beyoncé’s seen the film or not. I’d love to take credit for her performance. I taught Bruno Mars how to dance. (laughter) We were watching the Super Bowl like everyone else, and I was kind of shocked. We had just come from a screening at the Apollo Theater in New York. The screening was great and the theater was packed so we were in Panther world. When I first saw Beyoncé, I thought I was in Panther World still. There’s no way I can separate myself as a filmmaker from Beyoncé’s performance.” People said she shouldn’t be shaking her butt with a beret, it was anti-cop, but it helped the film. I’m sorry, but 100 million people were watching Beyoncé.
NW: Let’s talk about documentary films and the power they can have. You’ve been involved in films and made films that have sparked social change. Tell me about your thinking about how films can do that and specifically with this particular film.
SN: I think this film is a great example. We started out 8 years ago making a historical film and it morphed into a contemporary, really relevant film. A lot of times that happens with historical films. For the films I get involved in, I want to have some resonance to today. That’s the purpose of it. I don’t want people to see it and say “That was nice, now let’s go get a hamburger” but that you think about it and it has something to do with today. This film does that. It really is about what’s going on today. I thought it was relevant when it started—issues of police brutality were with us eight years ago. The idea of better housing and all the things the Panthers were talking about – health care, food – were still issues that we had. Obviously, it became more relevant as time went on, which is kind of a shock. But that’s what happened.
NW: Can you go deeper into that and talk about parallels between the Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter?
SN: There are just so many. For those who didn’t see the film, shame on you. (laughter) The Black Panthers started in Oakland, CA, because the police were so brutal. It was a known fact. They would go down south to recruit officers because they felt they knew how to better handle black people.
The Panthers started because in California, there was an open carry law. This is California, this huge state, that say you can carried a loaded gun as long as you carry it out in the open. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale found out about this law and said, “We’re going to police the police. We’ll follow the police around and when the police jump out to stop an African American person we’re going to jump out right behind the police with loaded guns and stand there and ensure no brutality occurs.” Now, you can think what you want about it, but I think it’s an incredibly brave thing to do. And that’s how the Panthers started. It started because of the issue of police brutality, same as Black Lives Matter. It’s important that we understand that we’re not talking about the police were brutal back in the 1966 when the Black Panthers started, and they became really good for 50 years, then they were bad again. It’s an ongoing thing that is happening. It didn’t start with the Panthers. It started a long, long time ago.
NW: So what do you want people to take away from this film? You don’t want them to go and get a burger…
SN: I don’t want them to go get a gun, probably. I’m not saying that. I think the Panthers are an inspiration. They started from nothing. There’s a picture that I always cite of the Panthers early on and there’s 6 guys standing there in a yard – Huey and Bobby and four other people – and that’s the total Black Panther Party. This is something that spread across the country. It actually spread across the world. There are chapters all over the world. We’re sitting here 50 years later talking about the Black Panthers, that they felt they could change their community. Then from the policing the police, they went on to the breakfast for children program, the first one in the country where they fed 20,000 kids in the morning before school. This was before the federal government had a breakfast for children program. They had a sickle cell anemia program. They had a health care program. They had food giveaways. They had a program where they would bus loved ones to incarcerated people. It morphed into something so much bigger. We have to do it ourselves. That is part of what Black Lives Matter is about. I think it’s part of why the film caught on so well – there is a feeling in this country, once again, that “we’ve got to do it ourselves.”
NW: Let’s talk a little bit about the artistic process. You’ve already talked about the music and the really powerful images you were able to find. It wasn’t really a great movie until you got your hands on it and put everything in the right place. Can you talk about what your priorities were when you were looking for just the right images and the subjects to interview and the music and how that all came together?
SN: I’ll start with the images. Because I’ve done a number of historical films before, I know how and where to get images. I was looking to find every single image that’s ever been taken of the Black Panthers, looking for every piece of footage, and then select from that what we use. Sometimes you find nuggets that you didn’t know about. We knew going in the Panthers had been photographed. We knew they were a phenomenon. Everybody was fascinated by the way they looked, so we knew there was stuff, but we didn’t know there was that much stuff. We got stuff from France, Algeria, England. I was talking about Freedom Riders four years ago and I said I was working on a Black Panthers film. A guy came up after and said, “I have a tape in my closet that says Black Panthers. Do you want it? I don’t know what’s on it.” He brought it by and we got it transferred and it ended up being a famous TV show where Eldridge and Huey have a big fight that caused what came to be known as the split in the party. Half the people follow Eldridge and go underground and half the people follow Huey. It’s that kind of luck from just looking everywhere hoping that you’ll find new stuff.
We had a list of Black Power songs and we had “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People” by the Chi-Lites. One day a guy who was an intern said “Stanley, I want you to see this.” And it’s the Chi-Lites on Soul Train wearing orange jumpsuits, with their hair out like this and they start out like this (gives black power salute) and singing “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People.” That’s pretty much how the film starts, with that clip. Stuff comes from everywhere and you just have to keep your mind open and see what you can get.
NW: Talk about the TV show where there was conversation between Huey and Eldridge Cleaver. And then you have the phone call afterwards. Where did that come from?
SN: It all came from the same place. It’s a long story but I’ll try to make it short. The tape that he had didn’t have sound on it. So it was a tape with no sound of Eldridge listening to the call, but Kathleen Cleaver has a box of tapes in her house. I’m looking through it and one says the Jim Dunbar Show. These are audio tapes. So that’s where we got the audio. The Panthers had recorded the conversation. They hang up after they have this argument and then Huey calls back and curses Eldridge out. That’s also on the tape.
NW: That was at the point where Huey kicks Eldridge out of the party.
SN: Right. He kicks him out of the party, but also you get the first inkling that Huey’s not right mentally, because he’s calling Eldridge a punk and all this other stuff.
NW: There must have been a lot of content on the cutting room floor. How difficult was it to edit this film even though it was so smooth and seamless?
SN: Aljernon Tunsil, the editor, just did an incredible job with the film. I’m amazed when I watch it. It was really just trying to figure out what the spine of the story was and trying to stick to that spine. If we went off on a branch, the branch had to then bring us back to the spine. There were so many times we could go out on a branch, then we’re out there somewhere and it doesn’t ever really bring you back to the spine. I would also say that what I’ve learned is that documentary films are made in the edit room. When we’re budgeting it out, we’re spending a huge amount of time in the edit room. I think for this film, we might have been budgeted out 40 weeks, and we probably spent a lot more than that. A&E Biographies and stuff like that edit in 6 weeks. That’s the difference. We’re spending A LOT of time in the edit room. If you use the time right in the edit room, then the film just starts getting better and better and you see the connections and it starts to work a lot better. We try to spend as much time as we can in the edit room, but try not to waste time in the edit room.
NW: Was there someone you wanted to interview but couldn’t?
SN: Bobby Seale. We just couldn’t reach an agreement for him to be involved. That happens. It wasn’t The Bobby Seale Story. If it was, it might have been hard to do. I feel fine because we made every possible effort to get Bobby involved. What we found was that there is so much footage of Bobby from back then that you really get a sense of who he was and his role in the party without having to see an interview with him.
NW: To me, it’s fascinating to hear from the foot soldiers, some of those who were not necessarily in positions of power, but were still members and could give a different perspective than we would hear from Bobby Seale. So Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution is only the latest of Stanley Nelson’s films. As you know, he’s made many other films including Freedom Summer and Freedom Riders. You said Freedom Riders, Freedom Summer and Black Panthers are part of a trilogy. Can you tell me how you see them all connected?
SN: We didn’t set out to make a trilogy, but I think they are connected. Freedom Riders comes first in 1961. Freedom Summer is 1964. Freedom Summer really ends with Stokely Carmichael yelling, “We Want Black Power.” That’s one of the last images you see, and that’s one of the first images you see in Black Panthers. That shows a direct connection. I think in some ways that the Black Panthers really were part of the civil rights movement. A lot of times people want to see the Panthers as this separate thing that’s very different. I think they’re just another piece of this movement.
NW: We talked about the twitter engagement yesterday. Tell me what you thought when you saw that kind of reaction and tell me why you think people responded the way they have.
SN: We were #1 trending in the world. I think we had something like 200,000 twitter hits or whatever you call them. For a documentary film. On PBS. It’s amazing. I think one of the things that happened for us is in the year it took to get the film out there, we had a lot of partners and an understanding of what social media could do. I think it’s very different than what it could do four years ago when we made Freedom Riders. It’s just a totally different thing. We started out with Kickstarter campaign to raise $50,000 to help with the theatrical release of the film, and we raised that money. That’s the first time we ever did Kickstarter. One of the things we learned is that we raised the money and that’s great, but we had almost 1,000 contributors who we then stayed in contact with. We asked people who were our friends or compatriots to be ambassadors on Kickstarter. Like Wendell Pierce, the actor in The Wire who has like 80,000 followers, who we knew because he liked our films. We could call on him when the film was going to air and get back in contact. We had so many partners we met at theatrical screenings – ITVS, Independent Lens, PBS. We used all that to get people tweeting and following the film, and it worked. It really worked.
NW: In addition to your incredible filmmaking, you’re also a teacher. You have a documentary lab. Can you talk a little bit about that?
SN: For the last seven years we have a documentary lab. It used to be called producer’s lab. We are working with 20 filmmakers of color all over the country who are making their first or second film. We have black, we have Latino, we have Pacific Islanders, we have Asian, we have Native American. It is highly competitive to get in. We mentor them to get films done, finished, on the air. It’s been incredibly successful and incredibly rewarding for me, personally. The idea is to get some filmmakers of color into the system. When I came up, there were government programs, stations had programs, there were ways to get into the system. Pretty much all of those things are gone. They’re so far gone that when we started the program seven years ago, we couldn’t even say we’re working with filmmakers of color. We couldn’t say that. It’s been hugely successful. The film on Independent Lens next week, Terror, came out of the lab. We have a film in the Berlin Film Festival. We’ve got a couple films in Tribeca. A lot of our filmmakers have gone on to make more films. Our mission at Firelight is to get more filmmakers of color in there and hopefully it spreads. They’ll hire an editor or an assistant director or a researcher and that spreads out. We had a little screening party last night and four of us who worked on the film, all of us of color, were there, all of us working on different projects now. We’re all working. We’re all being paid. That’s really what we’re trying to do with the lab is get more blood in the system. It’s really important that we do that.
Q & A from the audience
Question: I’m Dr. Rahsaan Harris (above) from Harlem representing the Emma L. Bowen Foundation. We were asked to have a national dialogue on race by our president. I’m having a dialogue with a high school friend on Facebook who says “black power” is the same as “white power.” How does your film contribute to the dialogue on race and what would you say to someone who tries to equate black power to white power?
SN: Is your friend from this country?
RH: He’s from central Jersey. He’s a white guy who’s a cop in Florida. We’re trying to have this respectful dialogue. He thinks that the Black Panthers are equivalent to White Pride.
SN: I’m probably not the best person to talk to about this at this moment. Fred Hampton says in the film, “Black power for black people, white power for white people, yellow power for yellow people, red power for red people. Brown power for brown people.” As Bobby Seale says in the film, “We don’t hate anybody because of their color. We hate oppression. We hate the murder of our people.” That’s what we’re talking about.
I asked about where your friend was from because some people who come here from Europe and they don’t get it. It comes from understanding the history of this country.
NW: Don’t we hear that a lot now? Even in response to “Black Lives Matter,” people say, “All Lives Matter.” Isn’t that the same thing—a lack of understanding of the history?
SN: All lives do matter, but it’s not white people who are being murdered in the streets over and over again. We’re not seeing video of white people being shot down unarmed by police or strangled by police. That’s why we talk about “Black Lives Matter” because white lives already matter.
Question: I’m Sara Lomax Reese, President & CEO of WURD Radio here in Philadelphia. Thank you for telling these really powerful stories about the American experience. Not just the black American experience, but the power, the pain, the frustration and the terror of the American experience. So I want to thank you so much for your body of work. What did you learn about the struggle of black people in America from doing this film? How are the Panthers that are still alive faring? What’s the quality of their life right now?
SN: One thing I’ve learned from doing these historical films is that it’s important we understand and recognize that history’s a rollercoaster. A lot of times we want to think of history as an upward movement, especially black people, we want to be like ‘we’re up from slavery,’ you know, ‘we’re moving on up.’ It’s not that way. It’s a rollercoaster, and it really depends on struggle. It depends on people working for change. It goes up and down. That’s one of the things that I’ve learned.
How the Panthers are faring depends on the Panthers, depends on the individual. Two people see something traumatic and one person suffers for the rest of their lives, and the other person skips away. Some are suffering from post-traumatic stress and that’s very clear. Others seem to be doing fairly well. I would say, and I have no empirical evidence of this, the ones who are younger are doing a little better. If you were 20 when the Panthers collapsed, you could go back to college and get on with your life. It’s very different if you were 26 or 27, and you might not tend to go back to school or try to get another life. Kathleen Cleaver got a law degree and is a law professor at Emory. Flores Forbes and Jamal Joseph both teach at Columbia. Others aren’t doing so well. It really depends.
Question: Maura Stephens, Park Center for Independent Media in Ithaca, N.Y.: I wanted to address the gentleman’s question about his Facebook friend. He was figuring out how to converse with his white Florida cop friend. I think that’s a problem that many of us have, and I wanted to suggest that it really shouldn’t be up to an African-American man to have to answer his white clueless friend about why the Black Panthers still matter and why black lives matter.
I think it’s really incumbent on those of us who are white and privileged in this society to intercede in these questions, and to jump in and explain it a little bit, and recognize our own collective culpability in the problem and to help the white people who don’t quite get it. Do you think that’s true? If so, do you have advice for white people on how to help other white people?
SN: Whoa. I think the more white people can talk about race, have more honest discussions about race, the better. That’s a start. One thing we saw in getting this film out there was there was a lot of talk. People were talking about race in a very different way than they were before because of what they were seeing on TV. White people were saying, “Oh my God, why didn’t you tell us?” Black people were like, “We’ve been trying to for a long time!” That’s a good thing to have these kinds of discussions, just to see. There’s so much in this country that we don’t even see. I live in New York, and I was driving by a school the other day and all the kids were black and Latino. We don’t even notice anymore. The least we can do is just talk.
Question: My name is Steve Katz and I’m with Mother Jones. Thank you again for this great film. Our history is tied to the Panthers through Ramparts magazine. It got me thinking about something I heard you say in an interview with Michael Krasney on KQED the other day. I heard you say the timeframe you were looking at most carefully was the mid-‘60s to ’73 or something like that. If you had extended the timeline out further, to ’76 or something like that, would the spine of the story have changed if you had done that?
SN: No. I think what happens after ’72, ’73, where we end, is, for people who haven’t seen the film, Bobby Seale runs for mayor of Oakland, and they call for all the Panthers all over the country to come to Oakland and help with this thing, help Bobby Seale get elected, and it really kind of ends the Panthers as a national movement. Bobby Seale gets into a run-off and after that, the Panthers go through this long, 10-year decline. A lot of really terrible things happen with Huey getting more and more, probably clinically insane, and more and more out there. We thought we had made that point and anything more would be beating a dead horse over and over and over again. The Panthers were no longer national organization and we didn’t want to go there.
Question: Julia Lopez, Philadelphia Jazz Project and Bartol Foundation: I was born and raised in the South Bronx. The Panthers and the Young Lords, at a very young age, were part of, in an unconscious way, just part of life in the South Bronx. I just wanted to know—I haven’t seen the film yet—if in all your research did you cross paths with the Young Lords in the film?
SN: We don’t really go into the Young Lords a lot in the film, but Felipe Luciano is interviewed in the film. He’s great as ever. He’s hilarious. We also talk about Fred Hampton in Chicago, where there were Young Lords there, who he tried to unite with the Panthers, and a white group called the Young Patriots Party. He was very successful in this, and that’s one of the reasons it’s thought he was murdered by the FBI and the Chicago Police Department.
Question: Tova Perlmutter, I’m here on behalf of Mondoweiss, which is a news website devoted to Palestinian human rights. I have two quick questions. One is that I was struck watching last night by the white program, Jim Dunbar. It felt completely surreal, as if Katie Couric was to interview two different leaders of black liberation movements at the same time. I’m curious about a) whether you think the white mainstream media is giving less credence to black liberation movements than maybe they did at that time, and whether you think that has anything to do with the consolidation of ownership in media, and the other thing I would ask is if you have Palestinian filmmakers in your lab, and would you be open to accepting them because that seems like a set of stories that would fit in your mandate?
SN: Yes, I think it does have to do with consolidation of media. Everything in the media has something to do with the consolidation of media. It also has to do with the terrible state of journalism in this country. No offense to any journalists, but mainstream journalism is terrible. One of the things I wanted to say before, but I forgot, there was all this discussion of race leading up to the fall, and then it became Donald Trump, and that kind of took over. Media in this country is just terrible. There’s another part of that question. We are open to all underrepresented people who apply to our program. If you go to firelightmedia.org, and to the documentary lab, that’s how you apply. We can only take people who apply. We also go to ITVS, the National Black Programming Consortium, and we go to film festivals, we go everywhere to try to find people and get them in the lab. It’s highly competitive. We’re looking for people who can get projects on the national schedule. That’s who we’re looking for. We try to find anyone we possibly can.
Question (Norris West): What is the importance of funding, and what is the state of funding documentary films like this?
SN: You can’t make a film without funding. Documentary film is by and large expensive, but we are also talking about reaching millions of people. We reached millions of people last night alone. When we did Freedom Riders, the repeat broadcast got better ratings than the first broadcast. Unfortunately, for black folks and other people of color, they’re not watching PBS. They wait until their friends tell them they missed it, and they start to watch. We reach millions of people, and that doesn’t count the thousands of people at the film festivals, at theatrical run of the film. There’s something else that happens with this kind of film that happened last night, it happened with Freedom Riders, it happened with Emmett Till, it just gets out there. It’s like this mysterious thing. It’s out there and people know about it and they will find it and see it somehow. Then they’ll start to think about it. Then you have Beyonce just suddenly wearing berets. What is that about? The Panthers are out there.
You know, funding is always a struggle. Filmmakers go through incredible odds to get films made, and give up years of their lives to get stuff made. But also, with the state of journalism in this country, so many times, documentary filmmakers have become the only real journalists that we have. If you turn on the major news channels right now, I guarantee you that Donald Trump will be on those channels right now.
NW: Last question: Great body of work that you’ve already done. What’s next?
SN: We’re working on a film about historic black colleges and universities. The Panthers is the first of a trilogy of films we’re doing for Independent Lens. Panthers was first. Historic black colleges and universities is second. We’ve raised all the production money. Only thing we’re looking for is impact money. Impact is a bottomless pit. Whatever you’ve got you can use, but it also increases the audience. We’re making a huge film on the Atlantic slave trade, and the business of the slave trade. We look at all of those films as having relevance today. These aren’t films that live in a bubble. They have relevance to our lives today, for all Americans. I think one of the things we try to do—the bottom line is we’re trying to entertain you. This is not medicine you have to take. If you want to be entertained, Law & Order is on somewhere. It’s important that we make films that are entertaining. This is not a history lesson. This is not an American history lesson. This is not a black history lesson. Hopefully it informs you, but at the same time, moves you and entertains you.