RACK FOCUS: SPOTLIGHTING FILMMAKERS
Stanley Nelson, Director of THE BLACK PANTHERS—VANGAURD OF THE REVOLOUTION
I first heard of the documentary THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLOUTION while at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The film’s synopsis caught my attention as I skimmed down the long list of festival screenings, mostly because of its historical significance (I am a student and was a teacher of American history) as well as its social relevance to what’s goin’ on in our country today, namely the countless killings of unarmed black men, women and teenagers by police. It seemed to me that the time is ripe for the release of director Stanley Nelson’s newest documentary.
I tried to get of hold of Stanley while at Sundance, but he was high in demand for interviews with other media and unavailable to meet with me; while scanning the airwaves one mountain-cold morning during the festival, I heard him making the radio promo rounds on “DEMOCRACY NOW with Amy Goodman” which I listen to on KPFK every weekday back home in Long Beach. Flash forward two weeks later and VANGAURD OF THE REVOLOUTION is making its West Coast-premiere at the 23rd Annual Pan African Film and Arts Festival (PAFF) in Los Angeles. Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, to be more exact.
I couldn’t help observing the stark differences between the community/location/setting of Baldwin Hills, California and Park City, Utah—the home of Sundance. The former is predominantly Black, urban and screenings were held in the Rave Theater adjacent to a mall; the latter, overwhelmingly white, secluded within snow-capped mountains and screenings were scattered all over town prepared for a festival with thousands of viewers and tourists hungry for movies and spending money.
After the screening at PAFF, I shared my observation with Stanley. “We got a different response from this audience than from Sundance; we have Black Panthers here in the audience, which is mostly black; a lot of the folks here have experienced what you see in the film in one way or another. That’s not to say Sundance didn’t get it; but the reception a film gets is definitely determined by the audience.”
A few days later, Stanley and I continued our conversation via cell phone from New York City, where Stanley lives and works.
I’m as interested in fellow filmmakers’ development and creative processes as I am in their work, so I asked Stanley how and why he got into making films.
“I got into filmmaking in the 70s. At the time I didn’t know what I wanted to do [as a career]. I took a filmmaking class and I liked it. I was watching a lot of Blaxploitation films at that time. It became important for me to tell our own stories.”
Stanley grew up in New York City, where police brutality, housing and education were concerns of his as a teenager—concerns that were addressed by the Black Panthers, whom he would “see on TV all the time; the media loved them.”
After graduating from film school, Stanley got his professional start with the independent film “Two Dollars and A Dream: The Story of Madam C.J. Walker.” He recalls: “That project took 7 years to make. I produced and directed, did the sound, edited. PBS broadcast it during a prime time slot. But I wouldn’t call it a “big break.” I thought the phone would ring with offers [to make more films] after the broadcast, but it never did…I realized I had to come up with another project, find funding and make the film myself. From there, it was one film at a time.”
I mentioned to Stanley that a lot of young filmmakers believe a successful first film will lead to big offers. “That’s a very Hollywood thing” he replies frankly. So Stanley took matters into his own hands. “I just knew that what I was working on would lead to the next project, in the process learning something that would make the subsequent film better than the previous one. I didn’t want to make a film that would stop my career dead in its tracks…For me, each film has been like climbing up the ladder one film at a time. I didn’t take the elevator [of success] to the top floor.”
Words of wisdom from a veteran filmmaker who dedicated seven years to direct THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF A REVOLOUTION.
“Why make the film now?” I ask.
“We needed some historical distance to make the film [in order to step away] from the negative view in which the Black Panthers have been portrayed.”
“Is this film an homage to the Black Panthers?”
“No. It’s a critical look at the Black Panthers that hasn’t been done before.”
“What sustained you over the seven years it took to produce the documentary?”
“I was working on other projects at the same time. I knew [The Black Panther] story was a great story…But it took some time to develop interest in investors.”
“How do you prepare your pitch to possible investors?”
“I’ve never pitched in my life. I work with people who deal with paper, drafting proposals for funding from organizations like PBS, National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford Foundation. At some point, I do have to meet with execs to discuss the project, but that’s after the proposal phase.”
“So, how do you get a story off the ground?”
“Write it down. What is the idea? What film do you want to make? And then you can start thinking about the beginning, middle and end. What’s gonna make this a film you want to make and just as importantly a film the audience will want to watch?”
“Speaking of audience, how do you get mainstream America interested in your films, which are primarily about African Americans?”
“I think African American stories are American stories. If the story is well-told, it becomes a universal story. I think that part of what you [as a filmmaker] have to believe is that our stories are interesting for anybody…As for the Black Panthers, theirs is an interesting story that goes beyond the African American community.”
With that last statement, I agree with Stanley. VANGUARD OF THE REVOLOUTION is a must see for all Americans, now more than ever. It deals with the police brutality over the Black community during the 1970s that occurs even now on a daily basis. The film shows how a small group of young people stood up for themselves and fought back, much like the young people of the #BlackLivesMatter movement are doing today.
For me, what is surprising in the film was watching the archival footage showing how unabashed the authorities react to dealing with the Black Panthers and their right to justice for all. “What about justice?” a reporter asks J. Edgar Hoover, who has ordered the raiding, shooting, and bombing of Black Panther offices all over the country, resulting in hundreds of arrests.
“Justice is incidental to law and order” Hoover replies with a straight face.
This idea that the status quo—in this case law and order—is supreme over the rights of African American is not new in American history, but I could not stop myself from asking why is it being repeated in 2015?
VANGAURD OF THE REVOLOUTION doesn’t aim to answer this question. As Stanley simply put it after I asked him what he learned from making this documentary: “I wanted to show that the Black Panthers were young people who wanted to change the world in a better way.”
How did the Black Panthers change the world for the better?
A Black Panther Party banner hanging over the entrance of one of their offices states their purpose for all to read: “We Serve The People.”
THE BLACK PANTERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLOUTION is now in limited theatrical release through March 2016 and will air nationwide on PBS on Feb.16th. It will also be available for purchase on that same day.
To check for screenings and watch the trailer: