An upcoming film by director Stanley Nelson will explore the history and impact of the Black Panthers, released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the controversial civil rights group’s founding.
Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution will be released in February 2016 as the first installment of Nelson’s America Revisited, a three-part series about pivotal moments in African-American history. The original Black Panther Party formed in 1966 to monitor police brutality against the black community.
“There hasn’t been a clear-eyed look at the Panthers,” Nelson said. “The Panthers have been basically looked at as black militants who are anti-white, and I think they’re something very different.” Opponents of the Panthers alienated them by characterizing them as militants, Nelson said, but they enjoyed support among African-Americans and even some white backers for their community social programs.
Nelson has wanted to tell the Panthers’ story for some time, and he envisioned a scholarly yet engaging film that would combine archival footage with original interviews of surviving former Panthers, including Elaine Brown and “Big Man” Howard, as well as FBI agents and police officers.
The interviews with rank-and-file members of the organization explore what it meant to be a Panther on a daily basis. Black Panthers will also examine the government’s efforts to bring down the Panthers, including a plan by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to isolate and dismantle the group.
Most former members were willing to tell Nelson their stories as long as they felt that he wasn’t trying to portray them in a negative light, the filmmaker said. Nelson hopes to provide a thorough and fair perspective, he said, telling their story “from the inside.”
Co-produced by the Independent Television Service for its Independent Lens showcase, America Revisited includes two more films – Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and The Slave Trade: Creating a New World. Both are currently in preproduction as Nelson finishes Black Panthers.
The multiplatform production also incorporates audience interaction. For the film about HBCUs, viewers will be encouraged to share personal stories and photos for inclusion in the film. Nelson said he wanted to explore the history of HBCUs because he felt that not enough people understood the effects that HBCUs have had on American life. He also saw the potential for a built-in audience of alumni or relatives of alums.
“Even something that feels in the past is really actually quite evident in contemporary events,” said Lois Vossen, deputy executive producer at ITVS, of the scope of the series. “If we don’t understand where we came from, it’s hard to figure out where we’re going and to understand each other and to build a better country where we’re communicating with each other and really dealing with these long, systemic issues of race and power.”