Emmy winner Stanley Nelson turns his sights onto the group the FBI deemed the country's "greatest threat"
Director Stanley Nelson and producer Laurens Grant won acclaim for their 2010 documentary Freedom Riders, which focused on a seminal moment in the Civil Rights Movement.
Their latest film focuses on a group that sprang up as a direct challenge to the traditional Civil Rights Movement -- the Black Panther Party.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is now playing in select cities [full list of cinemas here] and will debut on television later in the year on PBS. Drawing on fresh interviews with surviving Panthers and reams of archival material, it traces the Black Panther Party from its founding in Oakland, Calif. in 1966 through its dynamic but fractious period of rapid growth, to its dissolution, which was hastened by a campaign of sabotage and assassination orchestrated by the FBI.
According to J. Edgar Hoover we were, what, the number one threat to American security. I mean we were listed above the Soviet Union.
Nonfictionfilm.com spoke by phone with Nelson in Oakland, and in person in Los Angeles with Grant and two former BPP members who are featured in the film, Sherwin Forte and Mohammad Mubarek [Anthony Quisenberry].
Nonfictionfilm.com: Why did you feel it was the right time to do a documentary on the Black Panther Party?
Stanley Nelson: I thought the Black Panthers story was relevant to today... that they were calling for an end to police brutality, they were calling for better education, for better housing... We have a story that is almost 50 years old so the Panthers and the cops and the FBI agents who were a part of it are getting old. So it was now or never. Time to tell the story.
Laurens Grant: Fifty years later... we have a whole new generation who don't have those people in their families anymore. They're not getting the oral history of what happened in the 60s, say, from mom or dad or a guardian or a grandparent... I think there's just a genuine interest and thirst to know.
NFF: As we see in the film, many of the Black Panthers were very young when they joined the group.
Sherwin Forte: I was a teenager. My brother was a teenager. Bobby Hutton was a teenager. Most of the early members were teenagers. We were sort of listening to [BPP founders] Huey [Newton] and Bobby [Seale].
Mohammed Mubarek: I saw the images of Huey with the leather coat and beret sitting in a chair with a spear and a shotgun. I was one of many young people that liked that image and liked the idea of young black cool cats “ain’t gonna take no mess from nobody” marching like soldiers and I wanted to be a part of that and started hanging around John Huggins. Two weeks after I met him, Eldridge [Cleaver] was speaking in South Park [Los Angeles]. Must have been about three thousand people there. I seen these guys looked like real killers. Soldiers. Everybody wearing leather coats and I wanted to be like that, you know what I mean? I’m 16 years old!
NFF: It strikes me that the Panthers represent some of the best political branding, if you will, that's ever been done.
Nelson: I think the Panthers’ look, a lot of it came out of other movements around the world -- the liberation movements in Latin America, the beret of Che Guevara. The Panthers were great at wanting to stand out and use the media in very smart [ways] and part of that is having their own distinctive look. In some ways I think it was probably in opposition to the look that had been so prominent in the traditional Civil Rights Movement. So the Panthers were much more saying, “We’re young.” They had a much younger look. They didn’t have this suit-and-tie, buttoned up look. It’s hipper.
Grant: That was a transformative moment in American history. Now we take it for granted everyone’s got, you know, cutting edge style, whatever you want to call that. That was very bold.
NFF: As young men, Sherwin and Mohammed, did you feel drawn to the non-violent approach of the Civil Rights Movement as embodied by MLK?
Forte: It was difficult for me to get into the non-violence. I didn’t quite understand that. I mean, how do you be non-violent to somebody that’s beating the hell out of you? I didn’t see it. I thought that basically as a people we had been non-violent. I mean we weren’t the aggressors. We weren’t the attackers. We were always in a defensive posture. And I thought there had been enough of that. And in order to roll back something like police brutality you couldn’t really be non-violent. Being non-violent was the problem.
Mubarek: We were organized as a movement to defend black people against aggression and to fight for justice for black folk and to try to improve the conditions of black folk, and to do everything that we could on behalf of black folks.
NFF: The BPP was not a black separatist group in the way the Nation of Islam was. Is that correct?
Nelson: That’s completely correct. I think also one of the differences between the Panthers and the Nation of Islam and other movements is that the Panthers were not religious-based. The Nation of Islam is a religious-based movement. If you join the Nation of Islam you know you have to join -- become a black Muslim. Also many of the other traditional components of the traditional Civil Rights Movement -- Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, those people -- were based in the church. These were preachers. The Black Panthers were not that. They were an urban movement that was not connected to a religion.
NFF: Why do you think the FBI viewed the Black Panther Party as such a threat? Director J. Edgar Hoover called it the nation's greatest internal security threat.
Nelson: You have to understand something about J. Edgar Hoover. J. Edgar Hoover had a special place in his heart for African-Americans. There were no black FBI agents at the time. He came of age in the 1920s, the 19-teens, so that was the world he knew and the world he lived in. And J. Edgar Hoover looked at part of his mission to kind of keep the status quo, you know, to keep things just as they were. So any kind of change he was going to oppose. And people were talking about radical change. That was definitely going to get in his radar and drive the man crazy.
NFF: On what authority was the FBI acting in its efforts to sabotage the BPP? There was no writ of Congress.
Nelson: No one had control over J. Edgar Hoover. J. Edgar Hoover as the head of the FBI did what he wanted with very few limits... He was basically a free agent for a long time in Washington. He had the power to do whatever he wanted to do, and did, sometimes over the objection of the Attorney General. He did things that Bobby Kennedy didn’t know anything about. That was how J. Edgar Hoover operated.
NFF: They basically conducted outright assassinations of Black Panther Party members. That’s an extraordinary thing to contemplate -- the US government assassinating its own citizens on American soil.
Nelson: I think to understand it fully, what the FBI did is really to work with local police departments to assassinate and attack the Panthers. So the FBI themselves did not attack the Panthers. And sometimes what they would do is arrange for informants within the Panthers to arrange for the Panthers to get guns and then tell the local police, “Oh, the Panthers have guns.” You know, set up a confrontation. Or provide the police with intelligence... Fred Hampton’s bodyguard gave them floor plans of Fred Hampton’s apartment and a diagram of the bed he would be sleeping in and he was murdered.
[editor's note: Hampton was a rising star in the BPP in 1969. On December 4th of that year he was assassinated in a raid at his Chicago apartment by a joint law enforcement task force. He was 21.]
Mubarak: They looked upon us then like they look at Al Qaeda today. And they did not like us in the way that we were approaching the situation. A whole bunch of people went to jail. A lot of people got killed. Some people are still in jail, never got out of jail. That should tell you what level of antagonism they had toward us. They wanted to get rid of us. They came up with everything they could to undermine everything we did. If it meant planting FBI agents among us so they could start stuff among us and we end up killing each other.
NFF: The FBI did exploit internal divisions within the organization. How fractious was the Black Panther Party?
Nelson: We try to make that clear in the film. It wasn’t all the FBI. There were internal conflicts and problems. But who knows what percentage is what -- what percentage was the FBI fanning the flames, what percentage were internal conflicts that would have existed anyway. Huey and Eldridge both had very strong personalities and volatile personalities so the conflict might have happened anyway. But the FBI also was very clear, as we show in the film -- there were memos that we have to fan the flames and pit Huey against Eldridge and Eldridge against Huey. And that is one of the things that they went out of their way to do and they did.
The other thing that has to be thrown in there is because the Panthers for so much of their history were being persecuted and prosecuted they were very rarely together, in the same room and out of prison. Huey goes to prison early on and there are a series of trials. Eldridge Cleaver flees to Algeria and is living in Algeria. Bobby Seale is in and out of jail. And so these internal conflicts are also heightened because they’re never able to sit down together and talk about their differences and look each other in the eye.
NFF: Many of the key figures from the Party are no longer alive. Bobby Seale is. Did you try to speak with him?
Nelson: We really wanted Bobby Seale to be part of it. We tried but we could not reach an agreement with Bobby to be part of it.
NFF: Of the people who are gone now is there anyone in particular you would like to speak with to really find out their view of things?
Nelson: I would love to meet Huey Newton. And that is not only because I did this film, because he’s just an incredibly fascinating character. And the more you learn about him, the more you kind of don’t understand him. People say very negative things about him in the film and some of the same people say very positive things about him. And so he is a fascinating character and obviously a brilliant, brilliant intellect.
NFF: Do you have a sense that people who are involved in the Black Lives Matter movement are drawing inspiration from your film?
Nelson: I think definitely. We’ve actually had many question-and-answer sessions with Black Panthers, pairing them with people who are part of Black Lives Matter and a Million Hoodies and other groups. I think the film is really resonating with young people, with anybody who is thinking about what’s going on today and relating it to what went on back then.
Grant: [Starting work on the film seven years ago] we obviously could have never predicted what was happening [today] with all the recent police brutality cases in other cities and just the long simmering tensions in many communities, particularly African-American communities, with the police... Maybe it took this long to be right on time.
Mubarek: It came at the perfect time, with all that’s going on in America today and with the young people in most cases not having a clue as to what took place back then. They don’t have anything that they can reflect on to model from. This film does it.
NFF: What do you think people today who are protesting against police killings of unarmed black people can learn from the Black Panther Party -- both its successes and its failures?
Forte: That something has to be done. The movements that have come about in the last few years are the result of nothing concretely being done in the past. It’s sort of a redress. It’s like, “This is too much. This is over the top. Why are all of these unarmed people getting killed?” I mean here’s this lady who goes out and gets a ticket and gets dragged off to jail and she ends up dead. What’s with that? This guy can’t walk down the street without getting ordered to the other side and he ends up dead. Here’s this guy in New York where somebody jumps around behind and chokes him to death and he’s just asking to be left alone. They didn’t attempt to write him a ticket or anything. This is too much. It’s been happening for too long. And we need some redress. As long as that kind of redress isn’t met out, there will be requests for action on that issue.
You have to have justice, we have to have respect. You can’t have one segment of the population getting arrested all the time – seven or eight times more often than the rest of the population. I mean, is that democracy? So it’s about how to address this thing better and more concretely. And that’s it in a nutshell.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.