The Black Panthers: A Revolution In Review

This week on Telesur’s The Global African We sit down with acclaimed director Stanley Nelson to talk about his film, Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, and the relevance of the Black Panthers today.

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Story Transcript

BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Today on The Global African, we’re going to talk to director Stanley Nelson, who put together the film The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. I will also be giving a special, very personal commentary on the passing of activist and comrade Treston Faulkner.

That’s today on The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. Thanks for joining us again. Don’t go anywhere, now.

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FLETCHER: One of the most important documentaries to have most recently come out is The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution–executive producer Stanley Nelson. And we have the opportunity of interviewing him for this segment of The Global African.

What’s important here is that the history of the Black Panther Party, a major radical, revolutionary black nationalist organization from the ’60s and early ’70s, has been told in fits and starts, pieces here, pieces there, some memoirs, but there’s been very little attempt to put it together, at least on film.

Professor Nelson has delivered that in this recent film. And it has brought with it an immense amount of excitement and interest from all quarters, and hopefully a film that will inspire further scholarship and examination of what happened, including the role that the FBI played in destroying the organization through incredible infiltration, and certainly the assassination of key leaders.

Join us for this segment. I think you’re going to find this quite interesting.

Alright. So welcome to The Global African.

STANLEY NELSON: Thank you.

FLETCHER: First of all, congratulations on your film and incredible responses that–I’m interested in–as someone who grew up in the midst of the Panthers, was deeply influenced by the Panthers and very much affected by the split in ’71, I’m curious: what was your main motivation in putting the film together?

NELSON: There was no one main motivation. I think that the Panthers story had not been told. Nobody had told the story on film. I think that so many things that the Panthers were talking about in the ’60s and the early ’70s are things that are still relevant today, so many of the problems–you know, police brutality, unemployment, bad schools, bad housing. Those are still things that we have today. So I thought the story was really relevant.

I thought that the way the Panthers were remembered today was not the way they were thought of back then. So the Panthers have come to be remembered by so many people as this kind of isolationist group that was out there on an island by themselves, and that at that time the Panthers had made coalitions with so many different groups–the women’s movement, the antiwar movement, the student movement, and that’s not how they were remembered.

So I thought there were so many different reasons to make a movie about the Black Panthers.

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UNIDENTIFIED: We worked with organizations such as the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican street gang that had become political, and the Young Patriots–hillbillies, Appalachian white boys.

UNIDENTIFIED: I want to introduce a man who’s come over tonight from another part of town. But he’s fighting for some of the same causes we’re fighting for.

UNIDENTIFIED: Bob Lee, who was our deputy field marshal, had a meeting with them, and he was explaining why we should work together.

BOB LEE, DEPUTY FIELD MARSHAL, BLACK PANTHER PARTY: There’s police brutality up here. There’s rats and roaches. There’s poverty up here–that’s the first thing that we can unite on. That’s the common thing we have, man.

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FLETCHER: COINTELPRO and infiltration–a lot of people, even with things that have come out, don’t appreciate the extent to which the Panthers were infiltrated. What was your experience in talking to former Panthers about how they dealt with the issue of infiltration, paranoia, things along those lines?

NELSON: You know, I don’t think there’s one answer to that question. I think that the Panthers–the infiltration was so complete, it was everywhere.

I think that most of the Panthers I talked to I guess would say that they didn’t understand at that point how infiltrated they were, that they knew–well, they knew their phones were tapped and they knew things like that, but they had no idea of the extent of the informers that the FBI had planted and local police departments had planted within the movement. So I think that obviously was one of the most destructive forces or the most destructive forces that the Panthers had to deal with.

FLETCHER: And the lessons relative to that for today’s activists?

NELSON: You know, I think that for today’s activists, hopefully some of the film is a cautionary tale. You have to kind of understand what’s going on. You have to be aware of it. I don’t know how you kind of screen for it completely, but you are going to be watched. We’ve talked to people from Black Lives Matter down in Ferguson who say there are drones around their houses and stuff like that. I mean, so those things happen. Facial recognition software. Those things are there. So I think all of those are kind of part of the cautionary tale of the Panthers.

FLETCHER: You know, one of the things that I found interesting over the years in talking with former Panthers is very little discussion about sort of the internal decision-making. I mean, like, for example, they never had a congress, they never had an elected meeting or delegated meeting to make major decisions, and at the time no one seemed to feel like it was that important.

NELSON: Yeah, I mean, I think that that–yeah, I think there were problems–you know, you can look back at it and say there were problems in the way the Panthers were constructed, with the way they were constructed, you know, with size there not be these large meetings or things. The hierarchy of the Panthers was Oakland. And so there was–people don’t talk about that. People don’t talk about that resentment that there was because the leadership was all in Oakland. And so there were differences, and there was no way to resolve the differences.

And the other thing is that you have the Panthers that we look at so many times as being Huey, Bobby, and Eldridge as these leaders who were never together. I mean, we couldn’t find a photo. We literally couldn’t find a photo of Huey, Bobby, and Eldridge together and that they were never together. And as someone said, I think it’s a bite that we ended up not using in the film, but that you’ll believe anything about anybody if you never meet eye to eye. If I never meet you and can sit down with you, I don’t know who you are. So if somebody tells me, oh, he said this, he said that, I’m more prone to believe it, ’cause I’ve never sat down with you. So that’s just something that happened with the Panthers and I think helped to fuel J. Edgar Hoover.

FLETCHER: One of the things that I don’t think that a lot of people appreciate that weren’t around that or are younger–you know, as they say, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get you. I mean, clearly the level of attacks created a siege mentality, and it was a siege mentality that people outside of the ranks of the Panthers, and maybe a layer beyond, I don’t think fully appreciated and maybe wrote off a bit too much.

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KATHLEEN CLEAVER, BLACK PANTHER PARTY: It was obvious that the government had made a decision that this was all-out attack on the Black Panther Party. Every significant office was going to be raided, it was going to be bombed, it was going to be shot. There are going to be mass arrests.

NEWS PRESENTER: [incompr.] today, police and negroes fought a–.

NEWS PRESENTER: Police and Black Panthers clashed in Houston, New Orleans, and other cities.

CLEAVER: For the Black Panther Party, it was a crisis situation, because we didn’t have the resources to handle all these arrests and all these trials.

[music plays]

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NELSON: Yeah. I mean, I think that was one of the harder things for us to convey in a film. You know, how do you convey paranoia? But I think you’re exactly right. I mean, J. Edgar Hoover went about trying to create this kind of paranoia, this fear, this not knowing, you know, who do I trust. And in a very, very slick way he did this. And he’s doing it to teenagers. And he’s also doing it at a time when we were–when everybody was less sophisticated about what the FBI would and could do. So the whole COINTELPRO program was a secret. Nobody knew it even existed until ’71. So this is a totally secret program, which is now putting informers in. I mean, and these are not FBI agents, these are not your black suit and white tie guys. These are guys who are coming out of jail, and the FBI’s getting them out of jail so they can now infiltrate, as Gerald Lefcourt, who was a Panther lawyer for the New York 21 in New York, said, that five founding members of the New York chapter were agents. And that’s amazing.

FLETCHER: Yeah. I mean, yeah, it is. I knew someone that was expelled and was accused of being an agent. And I definitely do not think that he was, but I have often wondered whether the people that expelled him were in fact agents.

One of the things I also wondered whether you encountered–this may sound like a weird tangent, but in the aftermath of Manning Marable’s book about Malcolm X, there was this intense debate–and debate is maybe even not the right term. It was very difficult for people to talk about their differences. It was so visceral that–it was very, very sharp. And I was wondering, in doing the history of the Panthers, did you encounter that? Did you encounter both major clashes in terms of understanding history, did you encounter many examples of people not really wanting to talk about it? What was it like?

NELSON: I mean, it differed from A to Z. There were people there that we got in contact with who did not want to talk about it, who will not even–you know, you can’t say the word Panther to them. They don’t want to talk about it. There are people who talk about it all the time. There are people who don’t want to talk about certain things.

I think that one of the most telling things is that you talk about the split, I mean, there are Panthers who you can’t say the word split to. If you say that there was a split, they go ballistic: there was no split; Eldridge Cleaver left with some of his people, but that was not a split. I mean, and they will, like, want to throw down the microphone if you say split.

We were interviewing one of the Panther, a woman who will go nameless, and she said, well, who else have you been interviewing? And I said we interviewed this person, that person, and we interviewed a couple of cops from the LAPD. She took her mic off and threw it down and said, if you interview cops, I can’t be in the film; I’m not going to be in a film with cops. And it took us an hour to talk her down from that and get her back to be in the film.

But I’m just trying to tell a rounded story. Because I’m talking to cops, it’s not like I’m, like, in a drug gang and you see me talking to cops, and you’re, like, then going to–you know, is he–I’m just talking to police ’cause I think that I want to hear their side, I want to tell the most rounded story that I possibly can.

So I think there are still so many wounds that are so open. But when you deal with the Panthers for a while, you come to understand it. I mean, people were physically wounded. People saw their loved ones killed. People had mental breakdowns. People’s lives were destroyed. People have never gotten their lives back together. So this is life and death. This is, like, no joke. And people are taking it very, very, very seriously.

FLETCHER: The other thing that I have also seen is the relationship of the Panthers to certain other groups, like Ron Karenga’s group US. I mean, there are friends of mine, former Panthers, who will not celebrate Kwanzaa. Just they won’t. And there is no forgiveness.

But let me tell you, I was on a panel a few years ago that actually the late Manning Marable put together. It was something about black studies. And Karenga was there on the same panel. And even I had this reaction. It was like, do I really want to do this? Can I actually be nice to this guy? And I realized how deep those feelings were. Did you encounter much of that?

NELSON: A little bit. And we actually talked to Ron Karenga, who declined to be in the film. That was the first time I had ever talked to him. I mean, I was amazed at how smart he is. He’s a very, very smart guy.

FLETCHER: Absolutely.

NELSON: He’s no dummy. He’s no dummy.

One of the–we get asked that question a lot, like, what did you take out of the film, was there anything you took out of the film that you wanted to be in the film. And the only thing that we kind of had developed and really had worked with really hard to make work was the story of US and the Panthers at UCLA, and we actually cut that story. And we just couldn’t get it to work right.

FLETCHER: In what sense?

NELSON: Well, I guess the easiest way to describe it was that we had to do so much back story to get you there that it just didn’t make sense. One, we couldn’t find the witnesses to the actual shooting that we needed. And so we had one guy who was actually there and dove under a table but didn’t see anything. And so we can get you up to the shooting. But we had to first–so we’re telling the story of the Black Panthers. We now had to stop and tell you who US was and explain US. Then we had to explain why they were all at UCLA: they were part of this high-potential program. We had to explain all that. And so now we’re five, six, seven minutes into the story and we haven’t even started the story yet. And it just–we massaged it, tried to make it work. But we felt that the point of the story was the FBI. And, finally, we felt that we were very clear about the FBI’s role in destroying the Panthers. And then we told it in other ways, and that once we kind of took that piece out, ’cause it was a piece, then the film just flowed a lot better.

FLETCHER: I realize that you are short of time. Let me just ask you this. And partly this comes out of my love of science fiction. And I often think about–.

NELSON: I read a little science fiction too.

FLETCHER: Do you?

NELSON: I do.

FLETCHER: I’m very much into alternative timelines as a theme in science fiction. And I was wondering: was there another route that the Panthers could have gone through? Or do you think that just the forces of history drove it in a certain direction?

NELSON: Who knows? I mean, that’s such a hard question. You get the sense that Fred Hampton was a little bit different, and that might have worked. I just feel like Eldridge and Huey, it was never going to work. There were problems there that were never going to be solved. If you didn’t have the FBI involved, would it have evolved into something different, you know, with the food programs and the other programs? Maybe. You also had people who joined the Panthers because of the guns.

FLETCHER: Right.

NELSON: I mean, that’s why they joined.

FLETCHER: Yes. That’s right.

NELSON: You know?

FLETCHER: That’s right.

NELSON: And they were like, well, wait a minute. We can feed kids in the morning, but what are we going to do in the afternoon? And who knows?

I mean, I think that that energy could have been used in another way, and maybe it could have evolved from the Panthers, or maybe if it had started in a different way. I think that it was important that you had all this positive energy. And that’s what it was. And I think that’s really what it was.

And it’s also at the time when–and I think this is significant–when there–it was before you had the hard-drug crisis in the inner cities and in African-American communities. So you had all these young people who had all that energy of youth, you had this revolution and change that was in the air, and you didn’t have this kind of drugs to keep them down or also to get them arrested for having drugs or selling drugs. And so all of those things created this kind of huge forward movement that–hopefully it could have been something else. Who knows?

FLETCHER: Although the Panthers were one of the groups that was highlighting the influence of heroin into the black community that was coming out of Indochina.

NELSON: Right. Right. Well, yeah, that’s like throwing a pebble in the water. You know? So you can’t. I mean, how are you going to do that? You’re talking about a $1 billion industry, and you can’t fight it through pamphlets.

FLETCHER: The film is getting rave reviews, but there are some people, including some former Panthers, that have had issues with it. Do you feel that there are those that are expecting that the film–they’re upset because it didn’t include things that they thought should be included? I mean, what do you think is driving some of this?

NELSON: Well, first I should say that we’ve probably–at this point, probably 300-400 Panthers have seen the film in one way or the other, and we’ve got three or four vocal critics. So if you had told me that in the beginning, I would have said, yes, I will take that; let’s go. If you can also–if you could close your eyes and imagine a film about the Panthers that everybody would like, then you should make it, ’cause I don’t know what that film would be. You know? So we knew that this was coming, that there would be people that wouldn’t like the film. We are amazed at how few there are, how few detractors there are to the film.

And I think the one thing that I found about the Panthers much more than any film I’ve ever made, like, a hundred times more, is when we have a screening, people stand up and say, what about this? Well, why didn’t you include Geronimo Pratt? Well, why didn’t you include Stokely Carmichael? Well, why didn’t you include Angela Davis? Well, what about UCLA? Well, what about New Haven? You know, everybody’s got, because everybody has their own Panthers story that they want to hear. And that–I mean, it’s so different from Freedom Riders or Freedom Summer or Emmett Till. And I don’t think we were inclusive. I know that I can tell you stories in Freedom Riders that we didn’t put in, where they first go down to the upper South, South Carolina, and they get beat down in South Carolina. But we just felt, okay, there’s a lot of beat downs; we can only use one or two. But nobody ever stands up and says, what about that, because people don’t know about it.

But everybody knows something about the Panthers and everybody–if you don’t have their story–I mean, I got to–at a screening the other night, and I stood up, and I went to the thing, and I said, well, first let me say that Angela Davis is not in the film because she was not a Black Panther. So nobody asked that question. I mean, that’s how it is.

So, I mean, again, I think that we’ve been–I’m very proud of the film. We’ve screened the film and done Q&As with Kathleen Cleaver and Ericka Huggins and Emory Douglas and Jamal Joseph, Flores Forbes, and a lot more Panthers all over the country who understand that you can’t say and do everything. You can’t be all things to all people. That’s why when Ericka Huggins tells us that great story about the elephant and the blind man, we were like, yes, now we got our way in and our way out at the same time, because we can’t tell you this whole story, ’cause there is no whole story.

FLETCHER: Right. Professor Nelson, thank you very much. But also congratulations.

NELSON: Thank you, man. Thank you. You’re a good interviewer.

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FLETCHER: I wasn’t ready when the phone rang for the news that my friend and colleague Treston Faulkner had passed away after battling lung cancer. You know there’s that saying, death and I are old friends, and that’s a saying that I feel on a regular basis. But even with that, even with that sort of relationship to death, there’s no way to really be prepared for that announcement. Here we had a young man who just turned 40 in June, an activist from when he was knee-high to a duck, he was a field director for the Jobs With Justice, which many of you know, probably, is a leading labor and community-based coalition fighting for workers’ rights. He was very active in Southern organizing. He was someone who was deeply, deeply committed to the fight for justice. And, in fact, one of the things about Treston was that you could see when you were with him his utter hatred of injustice. He had a love for people, but an utter hatred for injustice, and it came across all the time. He was a fighter. He was making something of his life.

I last saw him at his 40th birthday party. He was full of excitement, optimism. Everyone thought that he had defeated the cancer. And shortly thereafter, it came back and it won its battle.

But the thing that we have to keep in mind is that this planet is a better place for the fact that Treston Faulkner was there fighting for justice, social, economic, political justice. And I’m reminded of Vin Diesel’s comments on the death of his friend and coworker Paul Walker and he said, so long, buddy. And I say to Treston, so long, buddy.

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