Documentarian Stanley Nelson’s latest project, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” launches today in New York City. The film is comprised of audio, video footage, and photography from the heyday of the Black Panthers and shines a light on what it actually meant to be a Panther day-to-day. Leading up to the premiere, we had a chance to chat with Stanley about the movie that took him 7 years to make.

Why did you make this documentary, and how does it connect to your previous work?

As a filmmaker, there are multiple reasons why I would want to make any documentary. I was 15 years old and living in New York City when the Panthers came into being. Like so many people I was fascinated by the Panthers when they came into existence in 1966. I saw the Civil Rights Movement on TV every day. But I think that our issues in the North are different than in Alabama, and Mississippi and down South. The Panthers were talking about those issues more central to our lives in the North. Also, the Panthers looked so cool, they had this look! It was very different from Martin Luther King, and the others. They had on black berets and big afros, leather jackets. As a filmmaker I thought it was a story that had not been told. I also felt that there was an incredible wealth of material. There were great pictures and footage, audio, and there was the music we could use of the times, to really tell the story.

I’ve made a few films about the Civil Rights Movement, “The Murder of Emmett Till,” “Freedom Riders,” and “Freedom Summer.” But they were really about the kind of non-violent, traditional Civil Rights Movement. So there was a chance to talk about something that really came after Freedom Summer, it followed what happened in Freedom Summer, but it was something new.

“We wanted the film to be about the everyday soldier of the Panthers.”

Would you say that the film focuses mostly on the genesis of the Party?

No. The film really focuses on the heyday of the Black Panther Party. So, 1966-73, that’s when the Panthers were at their height, that’s when pretty much anything we know about the Panthers occurred during those years. It was a long period from '73 to maybe 1982 which was the decline of the Black Panthers. It was a long, slow decline. 1966-73, those were the central years of the Black Panther Party.

The film describes extensively the key members of the party: Bobby Seale, Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver.

But not only. It was very important for us to talk about the rank and file members of the Panthers. We interviewed probably about 50 people, and maybe 45 of those are included in the film. Most of those people are people that have never been talked to about the Panthers, so they’re what you call the “rank and file:” the everyday soldier of the Panthers. We really wanted the film not to be only about Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, but to be about what’s called the “rank and file” of the Black Panther Party. What did it mean to be a Black Panther, day to day? What did it mean to be in the shoot out in LA? What did it mean to see Fred Hampton, and to work with Fred Hampton’s peak in Chicago, as a member of the rank and file? Why did you join as a member of the rank and file? You weren’t a leader of this party, you joined this party, and why did you join and why did you stay in it and why did you leave? I think that’s really important for us in the film. And I think also, the people that you mentioned are people we did not interview. Eldridge Cleaver is dead, Huey Newton is dead and we could not agree to an arrangement for Bobby Seale to participate.

There’s a tremendous amount of archives in the movie. Could you tell us a little about the process? How long did it take, did you have the narrative in mind beforehand?

The film took about 7 years to make. Four of those were research, and 3 of those years were actual production. One of the things that I tried to do is to use the footage and the stills to tell the story. We tell the story of the LA shootout between the Panthers and the police in detail. And one of the reasons why we tell that story—we wanted to make sure that we did highlight one shootout to give a sense of what that meant. The Panthers held out the police for 5 hours during the LA shoutout. News cameras got there and there was footage of the actual shootout. The cameramen got fairly close, you can actually see the police shooting and see bulletts bouncing off the brickwork. We have Panthers who were inside talking about their experience, and we interviewed policemen who were outside talking about their experience.

How did you manage to get both sides of the story?

One of the ways we managed was not to interview them and have them in the same room [laughs] and make sure that they weren’t even on the same day! Because there’s still animosity that exists between them. The police really wanted to tell their story, and I think we give them the room to tell their story. This is what happened, and this is how the police saw it: they saw the Panthers as very threatening. Also I would say—and I hope this comes across in the film—that a lot of times the local police department were used by the FBI. The FBI said that the Panthers were the most dangerous group in America to the internal security of the United States, and that they had to be destroyed. They would have an informer sell guns to the Panthers, and then they would tell the police, “oh, the Panthers have guns, you got to raid them.” Knowing that the Panthers—one of their central beliefs was that you can’t let the police just come into your premises without resisting—and it would set up these confrontations between the local police and the Panthers and the FBI would just kind of sit back and watch.

“The film took about 7 years to make.”

Talking of police brutality, how do you think this movie resonates today?

The movie is incredibly timely today. The Panthers started fifty years ago because of the police brutality that existed in Oakland, and then caught on because police brutality existed all over the country. That condition still exists today. We’re in a time where that oppression is at the forefront of the news and people are recognizing it and seeing it and it’s being talked about. In making the film we didn’t know it would be as timely as it is, but we did think that the issues that the Panthers raised by and large are still issues that we have today.

The other thing that you have to understand is that the Black Panthers didn’t exist in a vacuum, they existed because of the Civil Rights Movement, because there was a war going on in Vietnam, because there was this whole movement of young people and all of these groups fed into each other. There was this general sense that we can change the world as young people, and the world has to be changed.

They were a group with loaded guns who remained non-violent. The use of violence or non-violence in the Black Panther movement is very interesting.

It is indeed a very interesting piece of the Panther program. For good and bad. I think that as one person says in the film, what violence also did was paint them into a corner. Do you know what that means? It starts to put you in a box. Because now you have people who join the Panther party because they saw you with guns. That’s what they’re known for. It’s very hard to switch it up once you go down that road. And I think in some ways the guns and that whole militant image is what attracted people to the Panthers, but it also becomes a box that it’s hard for them to get out of. I’m sure that when Bobby Seale is running for mayor of Oakland, there are people who are like, “oh I could never vote for him, because I saw him two years ago with a gun. How can I ever forget that.”

What would you like people to take away, after watching the movie?

There are so many things I’d like people to take away. I’d like people to come out and say, “hey, I loved that film, I enjoyed it, it was entertaining, seemed like it went by like that [snaps],” I’d love for that to happen. I think that it’s important to understand that change can happen and can be made, and these were very very young people. These people came from nothing and really made a movement and we’re still talking about it fifty years later. Here we are: you and me sitting here, talking about that. 

Photography: David Brandon Geeting