New Doc Details the Rise and Fall of the Black Panthers

Black Panthers from Sacramento, Free Huey Rally, Bobby Hutton Memorial Park in Oakland, CA, 1969. (Photo courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch)

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is the newest documentary from acclaimed filmmaker Stanley Nelson, responsible for Freedom Riders (2009) and Freedom Summer (2014). Employing a remarkable collage of archival and found footage, photographs and present-day interviews, the film charts the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party from its Oakland roots to its international expansion and subsequent disintegration.

Director Stanley Nelson.
Director Stanley Nelson. (Courtesy of Sam Aleshinloye)

If the names Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver don’t spark some recognition in you (and they should), Nelson’s film acts as a smart, moving primer for anyone wanting a point of entry into the Black Panther origin story.

The film opens with grim footage of the 1966 Oakland Police Department brutalizing African-Americans. As many of the founding members of the Black Panthers make clear in their interviews with Nelson, this relentless oppression led to the founding of the party. Nelson spoke with me about the conditions that informed the creation of this revolutionary group and his hopes for the future.

Why was the Oakland police department particularly notorious for their brutality?

Historically the police in Oakland were known to be incredibly brutal. In California overall, Oakland stood out. California went to the western South to recruit police. When I first came to California as a young man, I was warned, "Don't mess with the police in California. Don't mess with the police."

Charles Bursey hands plate of food to a child seated at Free Breakfast Program.
Charles Bursey hands plate of food to a child seated at Free Breakfast Program. (Photo courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch.)

The Black Panthers coalesced in the urban North with a different set of goals and tactics than the Civil Rights movement in the South.

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In some ways, the Panthers were a reaction to what was happening in the South. The things that were being fought for in the South were, in general, rights that people had in the North. You're fighting for the right to eat at a restaurant. You're fighting for the right to vote. You're fighting for the right to ride anywhere you want on a bus.

Those were the things that northern African-Americans had. You're watching this on TV, and you're saying, "What about us? What about our problems here?" In some ways, the Panthers started as a northern movement. They were saying, “These are our problems. Our problems here are police brutality. Our problems here are terrible education. Our problems here are housing. How do we address those?”

In one of the interviews, a former Black Panther talks about his motivation for joining and says, “African-Americans don’t have the safety and privilege of walking down the street the way white people do.”

In some ways it was very similar to the southern Civil Rights movement where these rights had been deprived for generations, and for a number of different reasons. In the 1950s and the 1960s, it was like, "Oh no, wait. We're not going to take it anymore."

Part of our African-American culture and part of what makes African-Americans who they are is that we have lived under that and yet we continue to thrive and flourish. That's how we look at life. As people have said before, the Americans who believe in America more than anybody are African-Americans.

A group of seven small children walk to school with books in hand.
A group of seven small children walk to school with books in hand. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Shames)

It was surprising to learn how young the Black Panthers were, 19 and 20-year-olds.

In general, the Panthers were much more of a youth movement, as we see in the film. As a young person, if you've seen passive resistance when you're ten in 1960... and now it's 1968 and you're 18, and things haven't changed and he's still preaching this stuff, you're like, "Wait a minute. Maybe it's time for something new."

There were young people, especially who were like, "What are we going to do?" You see that in SNCC, the Student Coordinating Committee, who started calling Martin Luther King, "Da Lord." In some ways, they’d had enough of it. The other way that it was looked at I think was that they were all part and parcel of the same thing. We have passive resistance coming from this way, and if you have the more militant Panthers coming from that way, if you have the black Muslims coming from that way, all that pressure only helps. We have Malcolm X coming here. For me, it's all part of one movement. In general terms, we were all fighting for the same thing.

Panthers on parade at Free Huey rally in Defermery Park (named by the Panther Bobby Hutton Park) in West Oakland, July 28, 1968.
Panthers on parade at Free Huey rally in Defermery Park (named by the Panther Bobby Hutton Park) in West Oakland, July 28, 1968. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Shames)

Have you talked with educators about the way the Black Panthers are taught in school?

I was just talking with a high school teacher who said they have no way to teach it. They don't teach it at all. It's glossed over. We are hoping that this film gets to high school students.

Bobby Seale, one of the founding members of the Panthers, is still alive but only appears in archival footage. Did you contact him to participate in the film?

Unfortunately, we couldn't reach an agreement with Bobby to participate in the film.

The documentary ends with codas about the deaths of Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver while the song "Winter in America" plays. Was that the ending you had in mind when you first conceived of the film seven years ago?

I don't think the Panthers were successful in most of the things -- the ten point program -- they were trying to do. In some ways, the film is very optimistic in that it's about people who started a movement. Hopefully, we're in the beginning of the same kind of movement today where young people are very involved and they get something from it.

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The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution opens Oct. 2 at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco, Landmark Piedmont (Oakland) and Shattuck (Berkeley), and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.