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Why The Black Panther Legacy Endures

A Q&A with Stanley Nelson, the director of the first feature-length documentary on the black nationalist party.

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

Thinking back to the politically turbulent ‘60s and rowdy ‘70s, and it’s almost impossible not to conjure up images of the Black Panthers with their afros and berets, black leather jackets and combat boots. They were political and cultural juggernauts of their day, forging a new iconography of American blackness that would come to define an era of social change. Their influence remains evident in our contemporary culture, not only in music and art, but political and civic practices as well. They helped create a brand new language and pioneered modes of behavior for protest and dissent in service of the black liberation project.

In the first-ever feature-length documentary film on the subject, director Stanley Nelson maps out the history and the politics of the Black Panthers, using archival footage and almost a dozen new interviews with former members and Black Panther historians. Nelson’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which chronicles the Panthers’ rise and eventual fall, attempts to cast their highly contested narrative in new light. While the documentary gives ample screen time to the movement’s authoritative leaders—Bobby Seal, Huey P. Newtow, and Eldridge Cleaver—it also offers insight into the experiences of the Panthers’ rank-and-file. The audience is presented with first-person testimonies from former Panthers who entered the organization as impassioned young activists, beguiled by the Panthers’ revolutionary verve and transformational doctrine. GOOD spoke with Nelson about the influence of the Panthers, their political strategies, and what a new generation of black American activists could learn from their forebears.

What do you think the legacy of the Black Panthers is in today’s political and social context?

I think the Panthers have multiple legacies. Obviously, when you see the film, you can’t help but think about the moment we’re in now, with Black Lives Matter and other movements. The Panthers started as a way of policing the police, because of the police brutality that existed in Oakland, California.

They obviously have a legacy in the Breakfast for Children program that they had. Now Breakfast for Children programs exist all over the country and are part of the federal government, but they did not exist until the Panthers started it.

But, I think, also, in terms of the culture and the way African-Americans see themselves and see the world. That kind of aggressive behavior—nobody had ever really seen that before. You never saw a black man or woman get up into a white person’s face, with their finger pointing and saying, ‘LOOK!’ You never saw that in those days, you never saw that before [the Panthers]. Now it’s kind of a hip-hop attitude. That whole attitude of, ‘This is who we are and you can like it or not.’ This is part of the Panther legacy that lives today. And that’s important.

They’re so often juxtaposed in contrast to the Nation of Islam, as these two different approaches to liberation. Both movements were infused with the same spirit of defiance, but it was manifested differently in each group.

I think so, but I think the difference with the Black Panthers is that they’re not a religious movement. To be part of the Nation of Islam, you had to become a black Muslim. You couldn’t just, like, join and go to a couple marches. You had to believe what they believe.

But there was also the break that the Panthers made with the traditional civil rights movement, which was basically led by Martin Luther King and others. The SCLC is a Southern Christian Leadership—that’s what they are. It was a Christian movement. A lot of the rallies and [events] were done in churches.

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

A lot of the Black Lives Matter organizers who are organizing today have appropriated a lot of the concepts and language of the Black Panthers, and it seems like there’s a parallel, also, in how the Black Lives Matter movement has somewhat distanced itself from the traditional establishment of activists, in the same manner that the Panthers did with the SCLC.

I think the Black Lives Matter movement is trying to break from the past, from some of the traditional civil rights leaders, and also from the traditional civil rights style. As far as I understand it, they really want to be as much of a leaderless movement as they possibly can. I’ve been told that that comes from the lessons of the Black Panthers, who were very, very focused on their leaders, who were charismatic leaders—Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver. When the leaders fell through, so did the organization. So, with Black Lives Matter, there’s a want to build an organization that is not as focused on the leadership.

We’ve done screenings where we bring young people from the movement today in with Black Panthers to do a Q&A after, and the Black Panthers say over and over again: ‘It’s your turn, we’re all pushing 70 now. You expect for us to show up as 19-year-olds with fire in our eyes and afros and braids. We’re 70-year-old grandfathers and grandmothers. It’s a different time, even if the issues are the same. You figure out the tactics for yourself.’ Hopefully, the film will at least give a primer on what happened to the Panthers, both good and bad. The things they did right, and the things they did wrong.

Director Stanley Nelson. Photo courtesy of Sam Alesh

What were some of the other strengths and the weaknesses of the organization?

Obviously, they appealed to youth. I think that they were incredible in just seizing the media and getting attention. They were media darlings of their day. We have footage shot from Algerian crews, from French crews. Even having this iconic look—all of these things, they helped people to identify them. They obviously weren’t good at rooting out infiltration, with understanding the lengths that the federal government and the local government would go to destroy the Panthers. They weren’t good at that. I think they weren’t good at figuring out how to work with and work out internal struggles that come with any success. When you have success, you have problems. How do you work with that and how do you make it work?

Probably, they weren’t as good as they could have been in handling the pressure that the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover put on them. Who knows if there was ever a way that it could work? You have people who were 19 and 20 years old who were being targeted over and over again by the FBI. Also, it was hard for them to adapt, and that’s what has to happen in any kind of movement. If you start out carrying guns, and become famous for carrying guns, then how do you put down the guns? And also, how do you make the general public understand that you’ve now put down the guns, and you’re a different organization than you were when you started? It’s not simple.

You talked about the “iconic look” that they forged, and in the film we’re able to see some of the Panther’s cultural legacy, as far as the iconography associated with the organization. How do you think that has seeped into the current mainstream?

That’s a huge part of their legacy. If you look at the Ten Point Program—you know, we want an end to police brutality, we want better housing, we want to end unemployment, we want better schools—none of those things have happened. But why are we still talking about the Panthers? We’re talking them partially because of their cultural legacy. We wouldn’t have hip-hop without the Panthers—that whole attitude. For young people, it’s hard to imagine, but you never saw a black man up in a white person’s face. You never saw that. You didn’t see that in the civil rights movement. You didn’t see that from Martin Luther King. It was a very different kind of attitude, right or wrong. You could say, oh my God, why did we ever go there? But it doesn’t matter. The point isn’t why we went there or whether it was good or bad. The point is that we did go there and that’s the world we’re living in, which is filled with Black Panther attitude.

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

You said that the goals in their Ten Point Program never came to fruition, and I think we see from our current moment that the grievances of the Black Panthers are still today’s grievances of black people in America. How do you think those circumstances have changed, if at all?

Much of the Ten Point Program was very rhetorical and over-the-top. It was. ‘We want all black men released from prison’ and ‘We want an end to military service for black people.’ Part of the Ten Point Program was to catch attention. It’s a negotiating ploy. Some of it was meant to be over-the-top.

But some of the others were just as relevant today as they were back then—you know, ‘We want an end to police brutality,’ ‘We want better schools for our people,’ ‘We want decent housing fit for the shelter of a human being.’ All of those things still exist today. What came about from the civil rights movement were certain laws that were passed, which was great. But I would say that the civil rights movement changed things for a very small minority of black people. A very small minority of black people are doing great. But for the vast majority of black people, their lives are pretty much the same as they were in 1966. They’re going to segregated schools. They have high unemployment. They’re still the targets of police brutality. All of those things are still right where we were in 1966.

Why do you think it is that there aren’t many documentaries on the Panthers? They were such an important part of the cultural zeitgeist.

I think that the Panthers are not an easy story to tell. It doesn’t have that happy ending that we want in our films. You know, Freedom Riders ends with them passing a law that says you can ride on interstate buses throughout the country. Freedom Summer, in a way, ends with the passing of a Voting Rights Act. I’m not sure what the happy ending is to the Panther story. But who knows?

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