“THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION”

Encore: June 18, 2020

AWARD-WINNING FILMMAKER STANLEY NELSON REFLECTS ON CIVIL RIGHTS- FROM THE BLACK PANTHERS MOVEMENT TO THE BLACK LIVES MATTER MOVEMENT AND WHAT TODAY’S DEMONSTRATORS CAN LEARN FROM THEIR PREDECESSORS WHO FOUGHT BEFORE THEM 

The protests over George Floyd’s death in police custody have ignited what some are calling the next civil rights movement. And as the country searches for permanent solutions to larger social and racial problems permeating through society, we’re also reminded of another movement in our nation’s history that was both radical and often misunderstood. The Black Panthers fought racial oppression in the late 60s and 70s, serving as a catalyst for societal change while also at times resorting to violence. For a closer look at the movement’s complicated history, we’ll be joined by award-winning filmmaker, Stanley Nelson to explain the history of the Black Panthers’ rise and downfall and share his perspective on why George Floyd’s death has driven so many Americans to rise up in protest. Stanley’s documentary, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” is streaming on PBS and also re-airing this week on Independent Lens on Thirteen and WLIW.

Aired on June 10, 2020.

TRANSCRIPT

> GOOD EVENING.

I'M RAFAEL PI ROMAN.

WELCOME TO 'METROFOCUS.'

YOU KNOW, THE PROTESTS OVER GEORGE FLOYD'S DEATH IN POLICE CUSTODY HAVE IGNITED WHAT SOME HAVE CALLED THE NEXT CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT.

AS WE SEARCH FOR PERMANENT SOLUTIONS TO SYSTEMIC SOCIAL AND RACIAL PROBLEMS WE ARE REMINDED OF ANOTHER MOVEMENT IN OUR NATION'S HISTORY THAT WAS BOTH RADICAL AND OFTEN MISUNDERSTOOD.

THE BLACK PANTHER PARTY FOUGHT RACIAL OPPRESSION IN THE LATE 1960s AND '70s SERVING AS A CATALYST FOR SOCIETAL CHANGE WHILE ALSO AT TIMES RESORTING TO VIOLENCE.

THE COMPLICATED HISTORY IS AT THE HEART OF THE DOCUMENTARY 'THE BLACK PANTHERS VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION' WHICH IS NOW STREAMING ON PBS AND REAIRING ON INDEPENDENT LENS THIS WEEK ON THIRTEEN AND WLIW.

PEABODY AND EMMY AWARD WINNING FILMMAKER STANLEY NELSON WROTE, PRODUCED AND DIRECTED THE FILM AND JOINS US NOW.

WE WELCOME YOU BACK TO THE PROGRAM.

THANK YOU, GREAT TO SEE.

YOU ALWAYS GREAT TO SEE YOU.

LISTEN, I WAS GOING TO LEAVE THIS TO THE END BUT I'M GOING TO SAY IT AT THE BEGINNING.

I GOT TO WATCH THE FILM FOR THE FOURTH TIME IN PREPARATION FOR THIS INTERVIEW AND THIS TIME BECAUSE I KNOW THE CONTENT SO WELL I WAS ABLE TO FOCUS ON THE CRAFT AND IT'S JUST MASTERFUL.

IT'S JUST MASTERFUL.

I HADN'T EVEN NOTICED THAT YOU DIDN'T HAVE A NARRATOR BEFORE.

RIGHT.

I MEAN, THERE'S SO MANY THINGS AND I URGE ALL OF YOU FILMMAKERS, WANT TO BE FILMMAKERS, TO DVR THIS DOCUMENTARY AND STUDY BECAUSE THIS IS A DOCUMENTARY THAT IS WELL DONE.

ALL RIGHT.

THAT IS MY UNSOLICITED TESTIMONIAL, STANLEY.

LET ME START WITH THE QUESTIONS.

YOU KNOW, THOSE OF US OF A CERTAIN AGE ARE PROBABLY PRETTY FAMILIAR WITH THE BLACK PANTHERS, THOSE OF US WHO WERE PAYING ATTENTION TO WHAT THEY WERE DOING AS A MOMENT IN HISTORY, BUT I THINK A LOT OF OUR YOUNGER VIEWERS ARE PROBABLY MORE -- KNOW MORE ABOUT THEIR MYTH THAN THEIR REALITY.

RIGHT.

WHAT'S THE REALITY THAT YOU WANTED TO CONVEY IN YOUR FILM?

WELL, I THINK THAT YOU'RE PROBABLY RIGHT, YOU KNOW, WE KNOW THE MYTH AND, YOU KNOW, I WAS A RAT, I WAS A YOUNG GUY WHEN THE PANTHERS CAME INTO BEING IN 1966, BUT, YOU KNOW, MY MEMORY OF HOW WE LOOKED AT THE PANTHERS WAS VERY DIFFERENT THAN HOW THEY'VE DOWN IN HISTORY.

YOU KNOW, THIS HE HAD A BUNCH OF SOCIAL PROGRAMS AND, YOU KNOW, THAT THEY WERE ALIGNED IN MANY WAYS WITH THE ANTI-WAR MOVEMENT AND THE WOMEN'S MOVEMENT AND THEY WEREN'T OUT THERE BY THEMSELVES, THERE WAS SO MUCH MORE TO THE PANTHERS THAN BLACK RADICALISM AND VIOLENCE.

YOU KNOW, WE WANTED TO GIVE THAT IDEA TO PEOPLE SO THEY COULD, YOU KNOW, SEE FOR THEMSELVES.

I THINK SO MANY TIMES, YOU KNOW, THESE MOVEMENTS ARE MOMENTS IN HISTORY COME DOWN TO KIND OF, YOU KNOW, THIS MYTH AND WE FORGET THE REALITY.

SO WE WERE JUST TRYING TO TALK ABOUT THE REALITY OF THE PANTHERS AND WE ALSO WANTED TO TALK TO WHAT THEY CALLED THE RANK AND FILE, YOU KNOW, MEMBERS.

YOU KNOW, THE PANTHERS WAS NOT -- WERE NOT ALL HUEY NEWTON AND, YOU KNOW, ELDRIDGE CLEAVER AND BOBBY SEALE AND ELAINE BROWN, THEY WERE ALSO, YOU KNOW, PEOPLE WHO JOINED THE PANTHERS, YOU KNOW, SO WE WANTED TO SAY WHY DID YOU JOIN THE PANTHERS?

WHY DID YOU STAY IN THE PANTHERS?

WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE PANTHERS AND WHY DID YOU LEAVE?

AND SO THAT MADE UP IN SOME WAYS A LOT OF THE BACKBONE OF THE FILM.

SO WHAT CAN BLACK LIVES MATTER AND THE OTHER SOCIAL MOVEMENTS WHO HAVE TAKEN TO THE STREETS, ARE PROTESTING SINCE THE DEATH OF GEORGE FLOYD, WHAT CAN THEY LEARN FROM THE EXPERIENCE OF THE PANTHERS?

THERE'S SO MUCH THEY CAN LEARN, GOOD AND BAD, AND WE TRY TO SHOW ALL THAT IN THE FILM.

YOU KNOW, ONE OF THE THINGS THAT THE PANTHERS WERE REALLY GREAT AT IS SEIZING THE MEDIA, YOU KNOW, AND KIND OF TAKING OVER THE MEDIA AND GETTING THEIR MESSAGE ACROSS.

THEY WERE REALLY GREAT AT THAT.

ONE OF THE THINGS THAT THEY WERE BAD AT IS THAT THEIR MESSAGE HAD TO KIND OF ESCALATE, CONTINUE TO ESCALATE.

THAT WAS SO THEIR MESSAGE, YOU KNOW, MIGHT HAVE STARTED OUT HERE, BUT, YOU KNOW, IT DIDN'T PREACH MORE AND MORE AND MORE RADICAL VIOLENCE AND KIND OF BACKED THEM INTO A CORNER THAT WAS VERY HARD FOR THEM TO GET OUT OF.

YOU KNOW, SO THAT WAS A CRUCIAL -- I THINK ALSO, YOU KNOW, FOR BETTER OR WORSE THE PANTHERS WERE VERY MUCH DRIVEN BY PERSONALITIES, BY THEIR LEADERS, AND THAT WAS GREAT IN THE BEGINNING AND SLOGANISM, YOU KNOW, YOU COULD SAY FREE HUEY WHEN NOBODY REALLY KNEW WHO HUEY WAS, YOU KNOW, LET'S FREE HUEY.

ELDRIDGE CLEAVER, YOU KNOW, COULD BE THIS GREAT SPOKESMAN AND SPEAKER AND THERE WERE OTHERS, KATHLEEN CLEAVER, ELAINE BROWN, SO MANY OTHERS, BUT I THINK, YOU KNOW, WHAT HAPPENS AND WHAT YOU SEE IN THE FILM IS AS THESE LEADERS STARTED TO FALTER THEN THE MOVEMENT STARTED TO FALTER BECAUSE IT WAS SO BASED ON THESE LEADERS.

I THINK ONE OF THE THINGS THAT'S HAPPENING TODAY AND THIS IS A CONSCIOUS CHOICE AND A LOT OF -- A LOT OF TIMES WE DON'T UNDERSTAND THAT, BUT THERE IS A CONSCIOUS CHOICE FOR THIS ALMOST TO BE A LEADERLESS MOVEMENT, YOU KNOW, THERE IS NOT ONE OR TWO OR THREE PEOPLE THAT, YOU KNOW, WE CAN SAY, OKAY, THOSE ARE THE LEADERS, YOU KNOW.

IF YOU HAD TO NAME WHO THE LEADERS ARE, I WOULD CHALLENGE ANYBODY TO NAME THEM.

AND I THINK THAT THAT MAY BE A PROBLEM BECAUSE IT'S AN UNTESTED WAY TO HAVE A MOVEMENT, BUT IT ALSO CAN BE SOMETHING THAT REALLY WORKS IN THIS MOVEMENT'S FAVOR BECAUSE THERE'S NOBODY, YOU KNOW, TO BRING THE MOVEMENT DOWN IF THEY --

STRUGGLES.

SO WE WILL SEE WHAT HAPPENS, BUT I THINK WHAT'S MORE IMPORTANT IS THAT RIGHT NOW THIS MOVEMENT HAS TAKEN OFF, THAT, YOU KNOW, THE MULTITUDE OF PEOPLE WHO ARE CONTRIBUTING AND LEADING IT, YOU KNOW, I WOULD SAY, YOU KNOW, I'M GOING TO BACK UP AND LET THEM DO WHAT THEY'RE DOING BECAUSE THEY SEEM -- IT SEEMS TO BE REALLY WORKING AND THEY SEEM TO BE DOING IT REALLY, REALLY WELL.

SO WHO AM I TO SAY, YOU KNOW, THERE IS A DIFFERENT WAY TO DO IT.

I THINK THEY'RE RIGHT ON AND WHAT THEY'VE DONE IS AMAZING.

YOU KNOW, ONE OF THE LESSONS -- IT'S FUNNY YOU SHOULD MENTION ALL THAT BECAUSE THAT WAS GOING TO BE ONE OF MY BIG QUESTIONS, ONE OF MY BIG POINTS AND YOU JUMPED RIGHT TO IT, BUT THE OTHER BIG LESSON I THINK THAT IS OFTEN FORGOTTEN IS TO NEVER UNDERESTIMATE HOW MUCH THE POWERS THAT BE, THE STATE, WILL USE ITS POWER --

RIGHT.

-- WHEN THREATENED, RIGHT?

WHEN THE STATUS QUO IS THREATENED.

RIGHT.

BECAUSE THAT ESSENTIALLY, ALL ELSE ASIDE, THAT ESSENTIALLY, THAT ALL OUT WAR AGAINST THE PANTHERS IS WHAT ULTIMATELY UNDID THEM, RIGHT?

RIGHT.

AND, YOU KNOW, I MEAN, YOU HAVE TO UNDERSTAND, AGAIN, IF YOU SEE THE FILM, YOU KNOW, WE TALK ABOUT ALL THAT AND THE PANTHERS TALK ABOUT ALL THAT, YOU KNOW, THAT THERE WERE INFILL DATERS IN THE MOVEMENT, YOU KNOW, AND WE'RE SEEING THAT NOW, BUT THE FBI, YOU KNOW, THEY SAID THAT THIS IS OUR MAIN GOAL.

THIS IS OUR MAIN GOAL.

OUR MAIN GOAL IS NOT FOREIGN POWERS, OUR MAIN GOAL IS NOT TERRORISM, OUR MAIN GOAL IS TO DESTROY THE PANTHERS AND THEY HAD THEIR PHONES BUGGED, THEY HAD INFILTRATORS, THE INFILTRATORS WOULD SAY, HEY, I SAW YOUR HUSBAND WITH ANOTHER WOMAN.

ANYTHING THAT THEY COULD DO TO CAUSE DISSENSION IN THE RANKS.

WE HAVE TO UNDERSTAND THAT AND THIS WAS ONE OF THE FIRST TIMES THOSE TACTICS WERE USED.

SO THE PANTHERS IN MANY WAYS DIDN'T KIND OF UNDERSTAND EXACTLY WHAT WAS HAPPENING TO THEM.

YOU KNOW, THEY KNEW THAT SOMETHING WAS HAPPENING, BUT NOBODY UNDERSTOOD THAT, YOU KNOW, THE FBI AND THE POWERS THAT BE COULD BE SO SINISTER, BUT ALSO SO PETTY, YOU KNOW.

NOBODY UNDERSTOOD THAT.

SO I THINK, YOU KNOW, WE ARE CLEARER ABOUT WHAT CAN HAPPEN, BUT, YOU KNOW, WE'RE ENTERING -- WE'VE ENTERED INTO A WAY NEW AGE OF SURVEILLANCE, OF DIFFERENT WAYS THAT THINGS CAN HAPPEN AND NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWERS THAT BE.

I THINK ONE OF THE THINGS THAT'S HAPPENING IN THE MOMENT THAT WE'RE LIVING IN NOW IS THE POWERS THAT BE ARE SAYING, YOU KNOW, GIVING THE MOVEMENT ITS HEAD.

IT'S LIKE YOU GIVE A HORSE, YOU KNOW, IT'S REINS, GO AHEAD, I HAVE TO LET YOU RUN, I CAN'T STOP YOU.

I'M GOING TO LET YOU RUN AND THEN I'LL STEP IN.

YOU KNOW, IF YOU THINK THAT -- THAT YOU CAN DEFUND THE POLICE WITHOUT AN ORGANIZED OBJECTION FROM THE POLICE, THEN YOU'RE WRONG.

YOU KNOW, THE POLICE AND THE POLICE UNIONS ARE VERY, VERY ORGANIZED AND WILL DO ANYTHING, YOU KNOW, TO HOLD ON TO THE POWER THAT THEY HAVE AND THE MONEY THAT THEY HAVE.

SO I THINK THERE WILL BE, YOU KNOW, A STRONG -- IT'S NOT EVEN A BACKLASH -- A STRONG COUNTER TO WHAT'S GOING ON NOW AND I THINK IN SOME WAYS WE'RE LIVING IN SUCH A STRONG MOMENT THAT -- THAT, YOU KNOW, THE POWERS THAT BE ARE JUST KIND OF LETTING PEOPLE HAVE THEIR REIGN.

YOU DON'T SEE A LOT OF DONALD TRUMP RIGHT NOW.

YOU KNOW, YOU DON'T SEE HIM.

YOU KNOW, HE DOES HIS LITTLE TWEETS BECAUSE HE CAN'T HELP HIMSELF, BUT AT SOME POINT, YOU KNOW, THEY WILL REEMERGE.

YOU KNOW, YOU MENTIONED BACKLASH AND I WAS THINKING BECAUSE I WAS THERE, TO REMEMBER IT ALL, ONE OF THE THINGS THAT HAPPENED AS A RESULT OF THE TUMULT OF THE 1960s IN PARTICULAR, THE VIOLENCE AND TUMULT OF 1968 WAS IN PART -- IN PART IT LED TO THE ELECTION OF RICHARD NIXON, RIGHT, AND THE FAMOUS BACKLASH.

RIGHT.

AND THE RISE OF GEORGE WALLACE AS A PROMINENT NATIONAL FIGURE.

I WONDER IF YOU SEE -- IF YOU CAN ELABORATE, I GUESS, IF YOU SEE THAT THAT COULD BE A THREAT TO THIS -- TO THE DEMONSTRATIONS AND THE PROTESTS NOW.

YEAH, I MEAN, I THINK THERE IS ALREADY A BACKLASH, I THINK PEOPLE ARE STEELING THEMSELVES TO FIGHT IT AND BACKLASH.

YOU KNOW, I JUST -- YOU KNOW, WENT TO CAPE COD THE OTHER DAY AND, YOU KNOW, WE WERE COMING OFF THE HIGHWAY AND THERE WAS A BIG TRUMP RALLY, YOU KNOW, WHICH WAS -- WHICH WAS, YOU KNOW, JUST -- IT'S SCARY BECAUSE, YOU KNOW, WHAT ARE YOU RALLYING AGAINST, YOU KNOW?

I MEAN, ARE YOU RALLYING AGAINST THE FACT THAT A COP, YOU KNOW, SAT ON A GUY'S NECK FOR ALMOST NINE MINUTES UNTIL HE WAS DEAD?

IS THAT WRONG?

YOU KNOW, LIKE WHAT IS IT?

BUT I THINK -- I THINK THERE WILL BE, YOU KNOW, A STRONG -- A STRONG BACKLASH.

I THINK THAT, YOU KNOW -- WHAT I THINK WHAT'S IMPORTANT IS THAT PEOPLE WHO ARE INVOLVED AND ARE GETTING OUT THERE IN THE STREETS CONTINUE TO DO THAT AND THAT YOUNG PEOPLE, YOU KNOW, A LOT OF YOUNG PEOPLE ARE INVOLVED IN A MOVEMENT FOR THE FIRST TIME, YOU KNOW, AND THEY -- THE POLITICALNESS OF THEIR LIVES WILL STAY THERE, YOU KNOW?

IT'S NOT LIKE, YOU KNOW, SOME OF THEM -- SOME OF THEM WILL JUST GO BACK TO THEIR JOBS AND NEVER, YOU KNOW, NEVER SAY ANOTHER WORD, BUT MANY OF THEM WILL BE POLITICIZED FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES AND I THINK THAT'S WHAT'S IMPORTANT.

I THINK ONCE YOU SEE THAT SOMETHING IS WRONG IN THIS COUNTRY, ONCE YOUR EYES ARE OPENED, IT'S LIKE SOMEONE SAYS IN THE -- ONE OF THE FIRST LINES IN THE PANTHERS, ONCE YOU SEE IT, YOU CAN'T UNLEARN IT.

AND I THINK THAT'S WHAT'S HAPPENING NOW, PEOPLE ARE SEEING IT AND I DON'T THINK THEY WILL BE ABLE TO UNLEARN IT.

SO WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT LEGACY OF THE PANTHERS FOR US TODAY?

I THINK THE PANTHERS MAIN LEGACY IS CULTURAL.

THE PANTHERS CHANGED THE WAY WE RESPOND AS AFRICAN-AMERICANS.

YOU KNOW, I WAS BORN, YOU KNOW, IN 1951 SO FOR THE FIRST 15 YEARS OF MY LIFE I NEVER EVER SAW A BLACK MAN PUT HIS FINGER IN A WHITE MAN'S FACE AND SAY, NO, NO, NO.

YOU KNOW, THAT'S NOT WHAT HAPPENED.

YOU KNOW, SO, YOU KNOW, WE NEVER SAW THAT.

THE PANTHERS WERE IN YOUR FACE AND SAID, NO, YOU KNOW, WE DON'T HAVE TO WAIT AND THAT'S WHERE WE ARE.

AND I THINK, YOU KNOW, THAT'S A LEGACY.

THE LEGACY IS MAINLY CULTURAL.

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