The Untold Story of the Black Panthers [Exclusive]

Almost forty years after their inception, the issues the Black Panthers fought for are still relevant. Born of the social movements of the 1960’s, the brash younger brother of the traditional Civil Rights Movement has left a lasting image on the psyche of America – young black men, big black jackets, berets, and a no-holds-barred rhetoric, barked with rifles in hand.

And while this is how we remember the Panthers, big words and a bigger image, the line between reality and myth is fuzzy. For the first time in a feature film, director Stanley Nelson has set out to clear up the cloudy legacy that shrouds the Black Panthers, and instead present them as they were: a group of young individuals trying to make changes. The film, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, comes out today – September 2nd – at the Film Forum in New York City. On a warm day in SoHo, Milk’s Kyla Bills sat down with Nelson to talk Panthers, police informants, and what we can learn from history.

What was your first impression of the Black Panthers?

I was fifteen or so when the Panthers started – I was living in New York, in Manhattan – and the Panthers were just so shocking when they came on the scene. Not only what they were saying but also how they looked – the black leather jackets, the sunglasses, the berets. It was so totally different from the Civil Rights leaders we had in suits and ties, who had a very church base. So the Panthers were something very, very different. They were also talking about stuff that concerned us here in New York. They were talking about police brutality, they were talking about terrible schools, and housing and unemployment and the draft. So I’m this young fifteen year old like “Woah, what is this?”

Panthers on parade at Free Huey rally in Defermery Park (named by the Panther Bobby Hutton Park) in West Oakland. Oakland, July 28, 1968. Photo courtesy of Stephen Shames.
Black Panthers from Sacramento, Free Huey Rally, Bobby Hutton Memorial Park in Oakland, CA, USA, 1969. Photo courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch.

Panthers on Parade

Why do think this topic is still so relevant?

I think that the Panthers are still so relevant because the vast majority of the problems they were talking about haven’t been solved. We still have all those things in the African American community: a disparity in housing, income inequality, terrible schools, police violence, unemployment. Those things are pretty much where they were 50 years ago. The Civil Rights Movement really benefited a small number of African Americans a great deal. We have symbols – a black president, African Americans who head major corporations – but by and large if you go to African American communities, not that much has changed in their daily lives.

Do you think history has stigmatized the Black Panthers?

I do think history has stigmatized the Black Panthers. But part of that is natural. The Panthers came into being with this kind of sexy image that we had never seen before, with these black leathers jackets and guns. What people don’t realize is that we had never seen this kind of in-your-face black man. Think about it. In 1966 we had never seen a black man with his finger up in a white man’s face. So now, we were seeing it over and over again. A lot of the time people take their worst nightmare image or they take this image of the myth, the mythical image, and that’s what they sort of latch onto.

Fred Hampton at Dirksen Federal Building. Photo courtesy of Paul Sequeira.
Eldridge Cleaver, Berkeley.  Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Blankfort.
Huey Newton at microphone.  Photo courtesy of Stephen Shames.

The Vanguard of the Revolution

While the documentary includes a number of interviews with former Black Panthers, there’s also a multitude of interviews with people like police informants and government officials. Was it hard to interview people that seem to be so obviously against the progress the Panthers stood for?

It wasn’t. It’s not difficult for me as a filmmaker to interview people I feel are on the wrong side of history; I love to do it. As a filmmaker you’re thinking “I got this, I got the other side. This is what I want.” I think most people make rational decisions given what they think is reality. So what was your reality as a cop? I really do want to hear their point of view. I know that I’m getting another side which is great material for the film. The hardest part is finding people who will talk, and getting people to commit to talk about it. I’m always really, really grateful to anyone who agrees to be interviewed. There’s really not a lot that we can offer them. It’s the need that people have, the wish that people have, to tell their story.

What do you think current social movements can learn from the Black Panthers?

You can learn so much from the Panthers, both good and bad. Obviously, you can learn from the mistakes the Panthers made, but also they make you understand that the FBI and government officials will really marshal their forces against you. They’ll do that, they can do that. Also, I think the Panthers’ use of the media is really important to understand. They were great at using the media, at constantly being in the media. You can learn from their organization. You can learn from the fact that young people can make change. And that’s who the Panthers were: young people who said “Something needs to change and we can change it.” That’s the first step. If change is a twelve step program like AA, that’s the first one.

“Something needs to change and we can change it.”

Kathleen Cleaver, Oakland, 1968.  Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Blankfort.
Older woman wearing flower dresses with bags from People's Free Food Program, one of the Panther's survival programs.

The women of the revolution

Throughout the film there’s mentions of the Panthers collaborating with other social movements like women’s liberation and the anti-war movement, the Chicago branch even worked with Appalachian people who felt they were oppressed. Do you think the other social movements the Panthers were involved in is something that’s often forgotten about them?

Yes, definitely. I think that generally the Panthers have been thought of as this kind of fringe group of angry young black men without this understanding that the Panthers were, in some strange way, part of the mainstream, part of the dialogue. The Panthers were part of all of it. If you had an anti-Vietnam war valley, a women’s liberation rally, a student movement rally: the Panthers were there. The Panthers were not this isolated group, they worked with other groups. I think the other thing that I love is a quote from Bobby Seale where he says “We don’t hate anybody because of their color. We hate oppression; that’s what we hate.” I think that’s one of the central pieces of who the Panthers were. They would work with anybody. When they said “Black Power to black people. Yellow power to yellow people. Brown power to brown people. White power to white people,” they were saying that people should work in their own communities for change.

What do you think we should remember as the legacy of the Black Panthers? What’s the biggest takeaway from the movement?

I don’t know, what do you think?

What do I think? Umm… it’s actually a point I think you made obvious throughout the documentary: that young people can make changes.

That’s what I was gonna say! The thing that I think is really important is that it’s young people who change the world. There’s never been an old people revolution. Old people don’t start change. The other thing is that the need for change – the thirst for change – never ends. It’s almost like we got out of this period in the 70s and were like “Okay, the war is over! Women are equal! Black people are equal! Everything is great let’s just rest.” And it’s just not true.

The problems we’re having today are because things were never systematically fixed back then in that movement. I look at it as one big thing. The Panthers were part of the Civil Rights Movement, they were part of the anti-war movement, they were part of the women’s liberation movement. It’s all part of this huge social movement that’s just pushing. And I believe it’s pushing the country forward.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is out in select theaters today.

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