An American Epic For Troubled Times
By Jaie Laplante, Executive Director & Director of Programming
As Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival alumnus Stanley Nelson (Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise Your Voice in 2005; Freedom Riders in 2011) told moderator Thom Powers at a sold-out AFI DOCS audience this past weekend, when he first floated the idea of making a definitive history of the Black Panther Party (1966-1982), the general response was, “‘Aren’t there already enough films about the Black Panthers?'” To which he responded, “‘Which ones are those?'”
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History and memory are notoriously slippery. That’s what makes Stanley Nelson’s work so important. Nelson’s newest film, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, succeeds at creating a deep, complex, detailed examination of a movement that is in danger of being dismissed in our hazy collective consciousness as a somewhat extremist, fringe, violence-oriented movement that ultimately imploded, leaving other Civil Rights movement leaders carrying the torch of successful change into history. With that sense of successful change feeling more precarious than ever, The Black Panthers (opening theatrically in the fall, and scheduled to air on PBS in early 2016) has an even stronger contemporary resonance.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution asks: what ideas are still valid and in need of pursuit, and which mistakes could be avoided again? With a pitch-perfect opening sequence, Nelson begins his film by noting that a singular definition of the BPP would prove impossible – and proceeds to weave together extraordinary archival footage with stories retold by those who lived the events, keeping us grounded to a strong sense of the sequence of time and events, creating nothing short of an American epic.
Early sequences from 1966 focus on legally-armed BPP members following around Oakland, CA police patrols to “watch them” for harassment of black citizens – an idea of accountability finding a contemporary application in the increasing calls for mandatory body-cam video recorders for police officers across the nation. When a BPP leader, Bobby Seale, ran for Mayor of Oakland in 1973, the BPP team worked to register tens of thousands of disenfranchised black residents to vote, and galvanized the community to participate in the democratic process – a struggle that is still being repeated in communities throughout the country today.
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At the same time, Nelson carefully charts the troublesome aspects of leader Huey P. Newton‘s personality, and how the BPP largely unravelled by creating a cult of personality around their long-jailed frontman. When intense pressure eventually got Newton released, it wasn’t long before BPP discovered that they had put the power in the hands of someone that a former BPP member unreservedly declares was “a psychopath”. BPP’s main spokesperson, Eldrige Cleaver, described in the film as a “loose cannon”, significantly set back the movement when he chose to use violence aggressively rather than only in self-defense. And fueled by the high-powered emotions of frustration and anger, the BPP failed to discover that its own head of security was operating the entire time as an informant for the FBI, who wished to destroy the movement.
AFI DOCS is hitting a powerful stride only three years into its rebranding, relocation to the heart of D.C. (screenings take place just off Pennsylvania Avenue, between The White House and Capitol Hill), and program focus on subjects significant to the nation’s policymakers. There is nothing like art to bring passion to the people, and there is much to be said for raising pulses so close to the decision-makers. Collaborating with the National Archives of the United States on their annual Guggenheim Symposium, AFI DOCS further chose to honor Stanley Nelson for his entire body of work. The honor, and screenings of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, could not have been more timely.