While watching Stanley Nelson's documentary, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, I was propelled back to my own remembered experience in these years - hearing Stokely Charmichael speak at my college campus, learning of Fred Hampton's murder by FBI and Chicago police while I was in the army. By now, the film has taken the festival circuit by storm and has had a strong theatrical release. It's a masterful work, carefully constructed to explore an extremely complex history in a mere two hours. Inevitably some things are left out and others are simplified. But for an understanding of the importance of the Black Panther Party in the long struggle for African American freedom, this film is a powerful document.
I spoke with Stanley Nelson on Friday during his national release tour, and we focused first not on the compelling and important content of the film but rather on the art of documentary filmmaking. After all, an artist like this takes hundreds of hours of raw footage and thousands of still photos and structures them in the form of a story. Or in this case it is a series of stories, small vignettes that each stand alone and each contribute to a growing understanding of the struggle.
I asked him how he constructed the overall documentary out of the series of shorter stories. "I tend to think of things in sequences and that's how film works," he replied, "in scenes and sequences. And that is the same for documentary film as for narrative film, it's a sequence. Part of it is rhythm, part of it is the order you put the stories in.
"One of the ways that it works is that there were certain scenes that you could move around, so there are certain sequences that fall into a time line and they have to be where they have to be. You know, the Panthers start, Sacramento action, then Huey gets shot. And then it's 'Free Huey.' Then the Breakfast for Children program. But then that morphs into the kind of style of the Panthers, which is something that you could move around. Where do you talk about the style? Where do you talk about the press, the media? Where do you talk about the rank and file and the fact that they lived together in these communes, which most people didn't know?
"So that could go in different places within the time line. So we had some pieces that had to be where they had to be because we decide that much of the story had to be told in a linear fashion. There's probably a way to do this film that would be non-linear, that would be beautiful, that would be the greatest film ever made. But I'm not smart enough to figure that one out. . . . But then you have these set pieces, these sequences, which can drop in kind of anywhere.
"Then as we got into the film we realized that those pieces had to come within the first half or two thirds of the film. Because once you get past that, then you just want to be into story. I mean, you don't want to hear about the Panther style after Fred Hampton gets killed. You're into the story. So now we know that the set pieces have to be in the first half. And where do they go in the first half? And that involves kind of rhythm and flow. In some ways that was one of the hardest parts of structuring the film is how do you structure that first half."
As we discussed the art of documentary making, we also agreed that there are certain characters, in certain interviews, who carry the whole film. One is the amazing Jamal Joseph, who was a mere 16 year old when he was arrested as part of the Panther 21 group in New York - he went on to be an ongoing organizer and is now a media studies professor. "Jamal is that guy," Nelson remarked, "one of those people who came out on the other end of his Panther experience in a really beautiful and whole way and it's really great to see."
Also crucial voice that Nelson captured was Erica Huggins - a young activist from Philadelphia who moved with her husband John Huggins to Oakland to work with the Panthers. John was killed at UCLA while doing organizing work. Erica continued on as one of the clearest voices of the party and an ongoing organizer today. Whenever she comes on the screen, you came to expect clarity and insight.
But perhaps the most powerful interview is with Wayne Pharr, who was a 19-year-old Panther when he barely escaped being killed by the police. It is the most wrenching sequence in the film, the pivotal moment that tells the whole story - the police raid on the Los Angeles Black Panther office in 1969, just four days after Chicago police had killed Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. The LA Panthers were determined to repel an attack and, if they were to die, at least they would have been able to put up resistance. An astounding thing happened. While over 300 police were present to "serve a warrant," they were repelled by gunfire from within and a five-hour standoff gun battle ensued. Because it was not over quickly, there was time for the press and the community to arrive. With such a large crowd present, the police could not complete the assassination mission and only took the survivors into custody.
Nelson got some beautiful present-day interviews with people who had survived this battle, including Gil Parker, Muhammad Mubarak, Roland Freeman, and Wayne Pharr. The description of what it took to hold out under fire, how it felt to be taking the full brunt of state attacks, is stunning. Especially beautiful is Wayne Pharr, whose own memoir was just recently published.
After the survivors describe what it's like to be under fire and trading shots for hours, after they describe the wounds they suffered, the blood on their face and bodies, and the pretty certain feeling that they were going to die, Pharr explains, "I felt free. I felt absolutely free. I was a free Negro. I was making my own rules. You couldn't get in and I couldn't get out. But in my space, I was the king. In that little space that I had, I was the king. And that's what I felt. You understand? That's what I felt."
What a transcendent moment. To recognize the achievement of freedom at the very moment of one's death - a death that comes in a moment of complete resistance - is both frightening and beautiful. It's the freedom that Denmark Vesey experienced, the freedom that Nat Turner spoke about.
I asked Stanley Nelson about that sequence and he picked up on it immediately. He said, "That was the one moment that helped pull us through that film. We literally would watch that clip, you know. I would go in there and say, 'OK, let's watch Wayne Pharr.' When I would get depressed and feel like we were never going to complete the project, I'd go let's go watch Wayne Pharr. And we would take a breath and say 'It's going to be alright because we've got that.'"
He added, "The other thing is that it's just such an incredible thing is both those guys, Roland Freeman and Wayne Pharr, have passed away since we did those interviews. There's a lot of psychological pressure and stress that affected their lives." We can only be grateful that Nelson got that interview and was able to tell their story before they died.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution reminds us of what a revolutionary period we were in and we are in. Tired of being brutalized and ostracized and colonized, urban Black communities were in a state of rebellion. When J. Edgar Hoover declared that the Black Liberation Movement was the greatest threat to the internal security of the US (and by that he meant those racists in power) he was not just a silly delusional old man. He understood the revolutionary challenge at hand and he was absolutely right that they threatened the power structure. And when the BPP demand for basic democratic rights in the form of community control of the police was met with massive armed assaults, it only proved how entrenched the repressive relationship between the state and Black communities has always been.
Stanley Nelson felt compelled to make the film in order to contribute to the ongoing process of discussion and action for Black liberation. He argues that the Black Lives Matter movement is not just a new period but is actually part of an ongoing legacy, a long period of struggle, that goes back many decades and still continues. And he says that future generations people may well regard this as all one extended movement. The lessons of the Black Panther Party legacy, lessons that are political and cultural and personal, are worth gathering, debating, and moving forward today.