Nearly 50 years ago, in 1966, a group of six black men in Oakland, Calif., came together in an effort to curb police brutality against African-Americans in the city. Because of a quirk in California law, the men were able to carry loaded weapons openly. The Black Panthers, as they became known, would follow the police around, jumping out of their cars with guns drawn if the police made a stop.
"They would observe the police and make sure that no brutality occurred," filmmaker Stanley Nelson tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "What they were really doing was policing the police."
Nelson, who chronicles the Panther movement in his new documentary, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, says the group was a response to what some saw as the limitations of the nonviolent civil rights movement.
"When the Panthers came into being, there were a number of people, especially young people, who kind of felt that the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King ... had run its course," Nelson says. "It had gotten what it could get, and something else was needed; new tactics were needed."
Led by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the Panthers put forth a 10-point program that sought to address a host of problems, including police brutality, poor housing and subpar education.
The director notes that when he began the film seven years ago, he could never have anticipated that it would be released at a time when issues of police brutality and justice for African-Americans were so prominent.
"It's made people want to see the film and want to understand how this was happening 50 years ago and it's still happening now," he says.
On the Panthers' 10-point program
Sometimes the rhetoric is definitely over-the-top, and I think that's one of the things that the Panthers knew and wanted it to be over-the-top. It's saying, "OK, we're going to totally break from what the traditional civil rights movement is asking for. We're not asking for a right to sit on a bus or eat in a restaurant — our demands are much more radical, and they might be over-the-top, but they'll also get your attention." And I think [what] the Black Panthers wanted to do — they wanted to get attention. I think what happens as time goes on is they are kind of trapped into this corner that they've painted for themselves: one, with the over-the-top rhetoric; two, with the guns that they carry at first. And so they're trapped in some ways [and] can't get out of that box as time goes on.
On the Panthers' free breakfast program
The free breakfast program was one of those ideas that just kind of arose out of a need. There are different stories about how it actually started, but the Panthers saw that young kids were not being fed breakfast before school; there was no national government program to give kids a healthy meal before school. So the Panthers just started doing it, and it ended up being a very, very successful program and, I think, the Panthers always say it's what spurred the government on to have breakfast programs that are still in existence today.
It was a very, very successful program for the Panthers, and actually J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, said it was probably the most dangerous thing that the Panthers were doing, because it was winning not only the hearts and minds of young kids but also of their parents.
On the Black Panther uniform of leather jackets and berets
The idea of the black leather jacket and the beret came from Huey Newton and Bobby Seale and they came up with the idea because they said, "Every young black man has a black leather jacket or can get one or can borrow one if they can't buy one." And so it was something that everybody had in their closet — again this is 1966, 1967 — in that period, and that's how they came up with it. So if you look at some of the pictures, everybody has on leather jackets, but they're all slightly different — some might have a double-breasted black leather jacket, some might have a black jacket with a zipper, some might have a black jacket that's kind of a suit jacket. ...
The look was very, very calculated. This was a break from ... Martin Luther King and the suits and ties and that kind of "we're going to look proper." ... A lot of people don't know that was really part of the traditional civil rights movement, that they dressed up because they wanted to show you the difference between them all dressed up in suits and ties — the women were encouraged to wear dresses and sometimes little white gloves — because they wanted to show you the difference between them and the mobs that would be chasing them or screaming at them. The Panthers, again, were much more urban. They were after a different crew. And it worked. It was this new look and they looked so cool, everybody who was young wanted to be a Panther because of the look.
On how the FBI targeted the Black Panther Party
[Hoover] issues memos ... that basically say to his agents, "Do anything that you can, anything that you can think of to destroy the party." So the FBI does things that range from infiltrating the party and having agent provocateurs inside the Panther Party who are provoking violent acts and buying guns and supplying guns to the Panthers, to he has [a] memo that says we have to set spouse against spouse. ...
I think that the Black Panthers and the leadership felt that their phones were tapped and those kind of things, but nobody understood the extent that the FBI was going to destroy the Panthers and other groups. ... The idea of writing letters to people's husbands or wives to tear them apart ... that was one of the tactics that the FBI was using, but just anything that they could possibly do to tear people apart and to create the sense of paranoia because you didn't know what was going on. You didn't know what was true or what was not true; you didn't know who your friends were. All of those things the FBI was using and I don't think anybody really understood the extent and the low level that the FBI would sink to to destroy people it looked at as its enemies. ...
The Panther Party was riddled with informants. They had no background checks that they could do on people, so they had this kind of open-door policy: If you wanted to join the Panthers, they wanted you to be part of it.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In response to police brutality against African-Americans in Oakland, in 1966, Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton co-founded the Black Panther Party. The goal was to monitor police behavior, prevent police misconduct and create a revolutionary black power movement.
My guest, Stanley Nelson, has made a new documentary called, "The Black Panthers: Vanguard Of The Revolution." He's made several documentaries about recent African-American history. The new film is a follow-up to his documentary about Freedom Summer, 1964 and the fight for voting rights. The new film contrasts the Panthers with the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement was largely Southern, church-based and nonviolent. The Panthers began as Northern, urban and armed. The FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, tried to undermine the leaders of both movements.
Stanley Nelson, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So the image of the civil rights movement is civil disobedience, passive resistance. You just, like, sit and let them take you away to prison. If you're beaten, don't hit back. Then you get the Panthers who come along, and this is, like, an armed revolutionary movement. I mean, you know, they see themselves as a revolutionary movement, a liberation movement, and the, you know, iconic images of the Panthers are with a black leather jacket, the beret and the gun. So would you contrast that for us, the idea of, you know, people arming themselves in resistance, versus the civil rights movement?
STANLEY NELSON: Yeah, I mean, I think by 1966 when the Panthers came into being, there were a number of people, especially young people, who kind of felt that the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King and others - the nonviolent civil rights movement - had run its course. You know, it had gotten what it could get and something else was needed, and new tactics were needed. Especially in the North, you know, that problems were different and so different tactics had to be used. You know, the problems in the North were police brutality, you know, terrible housing, bad education. All of these things might have also been problems in the South, but I think they weren't being directly addressed in the North. And the Panthers saw that - saw themselves as a way to address this.
GROSS: And whereas the civil rights movement was trying to win the support and approval of the president and Congress to pass legislation that would deliver voting rights, that would end segregation, the Black Panthers weren't really, like, lobbying, you know, legislatures or presidents. They were making demands. And, in fact, there was a 10-point Black Panther program that stated their demands. You want to run through what some of those demands were?
NELSON: Yeah, some of the demands were an end to police brutality, education for our people, housing - better housing for our people. You know, there were 10 different demands, and it's interesting because, you know, we look at the demands today and probably none of those demands have been met. So we're still fighting the same battles. But I want to go back, if I could, to one of the things that you said a little earlier because one of the things I think that the Panthers did that was very different from the traditional civil rights movement was they weren't after the hearts and minds, not only of the government, but of the American people as a whole. The civil rights movement, the traditional civil rights movement, was partially, you know, to win the hearts and minds of the American people - we're going to be nonviolent, we're going to protest, and you'll see the difference between us, nonviolent, and people, you know, setting hoses on us, dogs on us, beating us with sticks, and you'll have to make a choice. And, you know, hopefully America will make the right moral choice.
The Panthers were more - what the Panthers were saying was, we're not after everybody. There's going to be some people who hate us automatically when they see us with the leather jackets, and the berets, and the sunglasses, and the look we have and the aggressive stance we have. And we aren't after those people. We will never get those people on our side. We don't need everybody.
GROSS: I want to say too that in making their demands in the 10-point program, there's a lot of rhetoric in that too. Like, number three - we want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black and oppressed communities. Number six - we want completely free health care for all black and oppressed people. Number nine - we want freedom for all black and oppressed people now held in U.S. federal, state, county, city and military prisons and jails. We want trials by a jury of peers for all persons charged with so-called crimes under the laws of this country.
Now, like, in that last one - like, some people have convicted actual crimes and not just so-called crimes. Like, the rhetoric is maybe just a little too heavy on the rhetoric side, and their demands, as was also true probably of the student movement at the time (laughter). Like, rhetoric was really big.
NELSON: Yeah, I mean, I think you have to understand that the 10-point program came out of - this is 1966. This is in the middle of that era. And so, you know, sometimes the rhetoric is definitely over-the-top. And I think that's one of the things that the Panthers knew and wanted it to be over the top. You know, it's saying, OK, you know, we're going to totally break from what the traditional civil rights movement is asking for. We're not asking for, you know, a right to sit on a bus or, you know, eat in a restaurant. Our demands are much more radical. And they might be over the top, but they also will get your attention. And I think that's what the Black Panthers wanted to do, they wanted to get attention. And I think what happens as time goes on is, you know, they are kind of trapped into this corner that they've painted for themselves, one with the over-the-top rhetoric, two, you know, with the guns that they carry at first. And so they're trapped, and in some ways, you know, can't get out of that box as time goes on.
GROSS: How do the Panthers actually start?
NELSON: The Panthers started in 1966 in Oakland, Calif. And it was - the Panthers were started by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale and four other guys who decide that they have to do something about the brutality of the Oakland police. The Oakland Police Department was notoriously brutal to African-Americans. So because there was a quirk in the law in California that said you could carry a loaded weapon as long as you carried it out in the open, what the Black Panthers did - again, there's about six of them at this point - was they would ride around and kind of follow the police around. And when the police jumped out to make a stop, the Panthers would jump out behind the police. And they would maintain a respectful distance away from the police - you know, 10, 20 feet - but they would have their guns drawn. And as they put it, they would observe the police and make sure that no brutality occurred on the part of the police. So what they were really doing was policing the police.
GROSS: You talked to some of the police who the Panthers policed. What was their version of the story?
NELSON: Well, it was pretty much the same version except, you know, as one of the police that we interviewed from back in the day, you know, he says, it was pretty intimidating. And (laughter) people always laugh at that in the film because it's such an understatement, you know, to see, you know, these black men with guns who were standing by, observing, as they put it, the police. One of the most fascinating things about that action was that no violence actually occurred as a result of this, again, policing the police.
GROSS: One of the central parts of the Black Panthers was their Free Breakfast for Children Programs. And I think you say there were, like, 20,000 meals in 19 communities delivered to children every week.
NELSON: Yes, that's true.
GROSS: So how did that become a central part of what the Panthers stood for?
NELSON: The free breakfast program was one of those ideas that just, you know, kind of arose out of a need, you know. There are different stories about how it actually started, you know, but the Panthers saw that young kids were not being fed breakfast before school. There was no kind of national government program to give kids a healthy meal before school. So the Panthers just started doing it. And it ended up being a very, very successful program. And I think - the Panthers always say it's what spurred the government on to have breakfast programs that are still in existence today. It was a very, very successful program for the Panthers. And actually, J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, said it was probably the most dangerous thing that the Panthers were doing because it was winning not only the hearts and minds of young kids but also of their parents.
GROSS: So I have to ask you about the black berets and the black leather jackets, which became almost, like, the uniform of the Panthers. And it was a very - it was a very iconic image that they created. And especially with the gun, it was - it just had this kind of, like, drama and power for people. Who designed that image? Like, who decided that there were going to be berets and black leather jackets? And when you joined the Panthers, like, was there a place to buy the right - the right beret and the right jacket? Because, like, you know, there are images in the movie, including a photo on the cover of the press kit for your movie where, like, everybody is wearing the same black leather jacket and the same beret?
NELSON: Right, right. The idea of the black leather jacket and the beret came from Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. And I think - they came up with the idea because they said, you know, every young black man has a black leather jacket or can get one or can borrow one if they can't buy one. And so it was something that everybody had in their closet. Again, this is, you know, 1966, 1967, in that period. And that's how they came up with it. So if you look at some of the pictures, everybody has leather jackets. But they're all slightly different, you know. Some might have a double-breasted black jacket. Some might have a black jacket with a zipper. Some might have a black jacket that's kind of a suit-jacket leather jacket. But, you know, their feeling was, you know, everybody could get a beret. Everybody had a black leather jacket. Everybody could get some sunglasses and get the Panther look. But I think also the look was very, very calculated. You know, this was a break from the Martin Luther King and the suits and ties and that kind of, you know, we're going to look proper, which was really, you know... A lot of people don't know that was really part of the traditional civil rights movement, that they dressed up because they wanted to show you the difference between them, you know, all dressed up in suits and ties... The women were encouraged to wear dresses and sometimes little white gloves because they wanted to show you the difference between them and the mobs that would be chasing them and - or screaming at them. The Panthers, again, were much more urban. And they were after a different crew. And it worked.
GROSS: Is the beret that the Panthers wore - did that come from Che Guevara and from, you know, the Cuban revolutionaries?
NELSON: Yeah, definitely. The Panthers looked at their whole look as part of a combination of different looks from different revolutionary organizations, you know, in Latin America, China et cetera. So they, you know, knew about these different movements and copied them. The artwork of Emory Douglas is kind of a takeoff a lot of times on Chinese and Cuban revolutionary art. And their look was also that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson. He was last on the show to talk about his documentary "Freedom Summer." His new film is called "The Black Panthers: Vanguard Of The Revolution." Let's take a short break. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson. His new movie is about the Black Panthers. It's called "Black Panthers: Vanguard Of The Revolution."
So there's a big shootout in 1968 involving Huey Newton and the police. Huey Newton, one of the co-founders of the Panthers, he's injured. He's shot, and he's also convicted of involuntary manslaughter. What was the shootout about? What happened?
NELSON: You know, that's in great dispute. Nobody exactly knows. But, you know, Huey Newton and another Black Panther - it was late at night. They were in a car. The car was stopped by two police officers in Oakland. One of the police officers, Officer Frey, was a notoriously brutal and racist cop. He was killed. I believe he was killed with his own gun. The other officer was wounded. Huey was very seriously wounded and had a number of - stood a number of trials for the murder of Officer Frey.
GROSS: While Huey Newton is in prison for over two-and-a-half years before he gets out on an appeals court ruling that the jury in the original trial was given improper instructions - while he's in prison, he becomes this huge hero, a rallying cry - Free Huey. And you could hear Free Huey not only at Panther demonstrations, but at antiwar demonstrations around the country and all kinds of, like, student demonstrations. How did he become such a big heroic figure and a rallying cry?
NELSON: Well, in another one of the Panthers' great, you know, media coups, they decided that they would push this movement and - that they came up with the slogan, Free Huey. And so Free Huey was painted everywhere. There were Free Huey rallies. Free Huey would be part of an antiwar rally. You know, there would be a Free Huey section, and everybody would start screaming free Huey. Free Huey - it just became this kind of iconic piece of that time. And at that point in time, you know, we didn't have the media that we have now. You know, when you went to jail, basically, you were incommunicado.
GROSS: Meanwhile, J. Edgar Hoover, then-head of the FBI, targets the Panthers.
NELSON: You know, he issues memos that we use in the film that basically say to his agents, you know, do anything that you can, anything that you can think of to destroy the party. So the FBI does things that range from, you know, infiltrating the party and having agent provocateurs inside the Panther Party who are provoking violent acts and buying guns and supplying guns to the Panthers to - you know, he has a memo that says we have to set spouse against spouse. He has another memo where he says, you know, we have to fan the flames and create dissension between Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton. You know, anything that they could do, they were doing to destroy the Black Panther Party. And I think the other thing that, you know, we have to remember when you talk about the Panthers is that, basically, the Black Panther Party, you know, was made up of teenagers. You know, the average age was 19 or 20. I mean, these were really young people. And now they're targeted by this program, COINTELPRO, that the FBI has, which is totally secret. And, you know, part of their mission is to destroy the Panthers.
GROSS: So Fred Hampton, who's a leader of the Panther Party, doesn't realize that his bodyguard is actually an FBI plant and informant. Any idea how the FBI managed to pull that off?
NELSON: Well, the FBI would do things. Like, if you had a charge on you that might be very small, you know, marijuana, whatever, you know, the FBI would say, you know, well, here's what you can do. Instead of going to jail, you can go down and join the Black Panther Party and just report to us, you know, what's going on, and, you know, also, we'll give you bonuses for your information. So there were - the Panther Party was riddled with informants. You know, they had no background checks that they could do on people, you know? So, you know, they had this kind of open-door policy. If you wanted to join the Panthers, they wanted you to be part of it. I was talking to a lawyer, Gerald Lefcourt, who was the lawyer for the New York 21 here in New York City. And he said that five of the founding members of the New York chapter of the Black Panther Party were FBI agents - FBI informants, you know? So, you know, they were there from the beginning in some of these chapters of the Black Panther Party. And, you know, they were - again, they had riddled the whole party with informants.
GROSS: So as a result of the FBI having a plant as Fred Hampton's bodyguard, this leads to a police confrontation with Fred Hampton in Chicago. Describe what happened.
NELSON: The police raid Fred Hampton's apartment in the middle of the night. They have a diagram that's supplied by William O'Neal, who was an FBI plant, who's Fred Hampton's bodyguard. They have a diagram with - you know, marked with the different rooms and the bed where, you know, Fred Hampton is going to be sleeping. And in the middle of the night, they come into the house. There's several other Panthers there. And they just start shooting. And they just start shooting, and it's this tiny apartment with plasterboard walls. So they just start shooting, and the bullets are going through the walls and, you know, just though the whole house, through the walls. They don't give any kind of warning. They don't shoot tear gas in. They don't do anything but just break through the door and start shooting. They actually shoot one guy through the door. And Fred Hampton is killed, and another Panther is killed. And it's one of the most tragic, you know, events in Panther history because Fred Hampton is 20 years old, and he's the leader of the Black Panther Party in Chicago. And he's working to form coalitions with other groups in Chicago - Latino and white groups. And he had been the youth leader of the NAACP in Chicago. So he's - you know, he is a real leader and knows how to make liaisons with other groups, and he's murdered. And, you know, William O'Neal, who supplies the information, is given a bonus for his information.
GROSS: He's the FBI plant who was the bodyguard.
NELSON: Yeah, he's given a bonus because of the information he supplies.
GROSS: So were any police officers ever held accountable for Fred Hampton's murder?
NELSON: No. There were no individuals that were prosecuted. But Fred Hampton's family and the family of the other Panthers who were there when the police raided received almost a $2 million settlement with the city of Chicago, the police department and the FBI. But that took years to finally be resolved.
GROSS: My guest is Stanley Nelson. His new documentary is called "The Black Panthers: Vanguard Of The Revolution." After a short break, we'll talk about a shootout between the Panthers and the police in LA and the big split within the Black Panther Party. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Stanley Nelson. We're talking about his new documentary "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution." It tells the story of the Panthers through interviews with former Panthers, police who clashed with them and an FBI informant who infiltrated them. This film is a follow-up to Nelson's previous documentary which was about Freedom Summer, 1964 and the fight for voting rights. The Black Panther's initial purpose was to monitor police behavior and prevent police brutality. There were conflicts with the police from the very start.
So there's, you know, several turning points, in terms of confrontations that you describe in your documentary like the pre-dawn raid in which 21 Black Panthers were arrested. And I want to ask - oh, and of course the Chicago Seven or Eight trial where Bobby Seale is gagged and bound because he wants to represent himself, and the judge doesn't want him to speak. But I want to jump ahead to a shootout at the Panthers headquarters in LA, which ends up carrying - being carried live on television. Describe that for us.
NELSON: Yeah, the LA raid happens four days after Fred Hampton is murdered. And so at this point, the Panthers kind of knew that they were being targeted and these raids are occurring all over the country. So what they did in LA was that they took sand and put it in the walls, you know, in-between the outside and inside walls of the Panther office in LA. They sand - put sandbags all around the walls and had shooting ports - gun shooting ports out, and so they're kind of expecting this raid. But, you know, part of one of the edicts of the Black Panthers that was sent out by Huey Newton from jail was that, you know, if the police come to try to break down your door, you should resist. You know, that's your duty as a Panther, to resist. So that was how the Black Panthers looked at it.
So in LA, it's the first SWAT team that was ever created. This is kind of their first - the first time they've ever done a raid like this, using a no-knock warrant. They just - kind of were going to go break down the door. And so in the middle of the night, four days after Fred Hampton is killed, they go to break down the door of the Panther's office. But again, the whole office is fortified, the Panthers have guns. And it turns into this huge shootout that goes on for hours and hours. And the significance of that is that the press has time to get there. So the press gets there and the shootout is still going on. And so the press is filming the whole thing as the police fire round after round in the building. And the Panthers are shooting out of these shooting ports. And it becomes this huge, huge gun battle, you know, with helicopters flying overhead and the whole deal. And one of the things that we were able to do in the film was not only get footage of the gun battle, but also interview two of the Panthers who were trapped inside the building and three of the cops who were outside the building firing into the building. And it's just a hugely dramatic scene.
GROSS: Yeah tell us a little bit about what the two men who were in the building, the two Panthers, had to say about how they were changed by this experience.
NELSON: Yeah, first I should say that the two men that we interviewed - who were in the building, the two Panthers - have since passed away of natural causes. And, you know, it just speaks to the need to try to tell these stories, you know, now while people are still alive who were there and can tell these stories. But, you know, probably the most amazing moment to me in the whole film was I asked Wayne Pharr, who was a Panther there in LA, he was trapped in the building. I mean, my question was simple to him, I said well how did you feel, you know? You're trapped in the building, you know, you're running out of bullets, the police are - have - you know, have surrounded the building. There's cops everywhere, they're firing into the building. You know, half the Panthers inside are wounded. How did you feel? And he says, you know, looks me right dead in the eye and said I felt free. You know, I was a free Negro, I was making my own rules.
And he goes on. It's probably, you know, for me the most dramatic moment in the film. And as we were editing the film, you know, that was the moment that we all - that we went back to, you know, when we had those dark editing days when you say, you know, this film is never going to come together. You know, this film is never going to be anything, you know, we feel like quitting. You know, we just watched Wayne Pharr say that and we'd be like, whoa, at least we got that. We can build the rest of the film around him.
GROSS: What did you hear from the police who you interviewed about this shootout?
NELSON: Every time, you know, we screened the film and their people always ask about the police because, you know, they don't show a lot of remorse. And, you know, I'm like, well, that's the police. I mean, they were doing their job. And they don't show a lot of remorse, but as one of the cops says, you know, he has this great statement. He says one of my friends told me when we do this raid, he said, my friend told me don't be at the door because the rest of the police think these guys are just thugs, and they're not. You know, they're committed and they're shooters. And you should not be at the door. And I think, you know, as far as he can go, you know, as a former police officer, you know, he's giving the Panthers as much respect as he can by saying that.
GROSS: Well there's a lot more story in your documentary about the Black Panthers than we can cover in this interview. Let me ask you what you think the Panthers' legacy is today.
NELSON: Well, I mean, I think the Panthers have so many different legacies. I think that one of them is, you know, just that attitude. That they had this aggressive attitude that you never saw before, you know, in black people. You know, you never saw it. And that that's something that's hard to imagine today, you know? As we say, you know, a lot of times there would be no hip-hop without the Black Panthers, without that attitude that they had. I think that there's so many things that reverberate today with the movements that are going on and are kind of in their very, kind of, beginning stages that are happening now out there. You know, Black Lives Matter and others - there's so many lessons that can be learned from the Black Panthers, both good and bad.
GROSS: You said that there are lessons good and bad to be learned from the Panthers. Would you give an example of a good and bad lesson that you take away?
NELSON: Yeah, I mean, I think the Panthers were masters at using the media and bringing the media to them and staying in the media and using the media. I think that their breakfast for children program is something that, you know, people are still emulating today. So I think those are the great lessons. I think the Panthers were not good at understanding, you know, the FBI's infiltration of their organization and the lengths that the FBI would go to. I think they were not good at that. I think they also really let themselves, in some ways, be destroyed by internal squabbles that were - you know, those flames were fanned by the FBI. But they still helped to destroy the Black Panther Party.
GROSS: Yeah, what was the split within the party about?
NELSON: Well, the split in the party came about when Huey Newton was released from jail. And Huey really - you know, at that point, Huey said we have to kind of go back to more programs like the breakfast for children. There was a sickle cell anemia program, there were medical programs, there were food giveaways. There were all these programs that the Panthers had. And he said that we have to do something that he called - we have to have survival-pending revolution, which means that we have to survive. You know, because of the way the police are aggressively pursuing us, if we keep on fighting the police, we're not going to survive as an organization. So we have to survive, pending this revolution. Eldridge Cleaver, who's now in Algeria says no. You know, we are an organization that's here, as he puts it in the film, to overthrow the United States government. And so there's this split. It becomes much more personal than that. Again, the FBI writes a memo that says we have to continue to fan the flames and turn Huey against Eldridge and Eldridge against Huey. And there's an argument on television and this leads to Huey kind of excommunicating the international wing, as it was called, of the Panthers, which is Eldridge and any others who were in Algeria. And that causes a split within the party.
GROSS: And it sounds like that split still exists in the minds of some of the people who were active in the Panthers then. And I'm thinking of Elaine Brown who is one of the interviewees in your movie. She was a very active panther. And then when Bobby Seale ran for mayor of Oakland, she was on the ticket, too, running for city council. Neither of them won, but they - you know, he did surprisingly well. So she is still not only really angry at Eldridge Cleaver who she says it was easy for him to say it should be a revolutionary movement, he was safely in Algeria while people in the United States are actually getting gunned down. But she's also even angry at your movie because she doesn't think that, like, her side is well-enough represented and that you don't go into enough history. She asked you to have her excised from the film, which you declined to do. So when someone says to you I don't like the - I decided I don't like your movie, take me out. Would you ever do that? Like, do you have a policy of look, no, you agreed to do this, you don't get to edit my movie after it's made?
NELSON: Yeah, I mean, I think every filmmaker has that policy pretty much, you know, documentary filmmaker. You know, you can't - people sign releases and, you know, you have to go with that if you still want them to be in the film as a filmmaker and you still feel that they contribute to the story. I think, you know, it would destroy filmmaking if then everybody, you know, could look at the film you made and say OK, you know, I don't like the film, take me out. Or I don't - you know, I don't like that one bite. Could you take that bite out? You know, I think that then you get into real problems. And also, you know, journalistically I'm not sure, you know, how ethical that is if you do that.
GROSS: My guest is Stanley Nelson. His new documentary is called "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Stanley Nelson. We're talking about his new documentary, "The Black Panthers: Vanguard Of The Revolution." What impact do you think the Panthers had on the student left in the late '60s?
NELSON: Well, I think one of the things that we show in the film is that the Panthers were not this group that was out there by themselves on this island as they've come to be remembered - that the Panthers, you know, were supported by the student left. They were supported and they supported the women's movement - that they supported and were supported by the antiwar movement. So I think it's really important that people see that and understand that, that that's who the Panthers were back then as opposed to the way they've come to be remembered. You know, I think that one of the reasons why the film is called "The Black Panthers: Vanguard Of The Revolution" is that people kept using that term, vanguard. You know, that for so many of the other movements that were there at the time, that Panthers were the vanguard. They were out there in front. And they were taking so much of the heat for other groups. And the Panthers used that term also. They say that we were the vanguard.
GROSS: So the Black Panthers start largely in response to police brutality in Oakland. And now you've released your documentary about the Panthers at a time when police shootings of young, black men and shootings and other forms of harassment of black people have been documented and shown over and over on TV. So anybody who had not been aware of this or had not personally witnessed it before, they're seeing it now. So what's it like for you to release the Panther movie in this climate?
NELSON: Well, I mean, I think it's just been incredible to release the film, you know, now. It's been amazing. I started the film seven years ago, so, you know, I had no idea we'd be in the moment that we're in now. I think what it's done to be in this moment has opened people's eyes and made the film much more accessible to a wider segment of the population who might have dismissed this story or might have said, oh, you know, the Panthers were something back then, you know, 50 years ago. Who cares now? I think that what it's done is it's made people want to understand, you know, how this was happening 50 years ago, and it's still happening now. So I think it's really opened people up to be able to see the film in a much different way than they would have been able to see the film, you know, a year ago even.
GROSS: What was some of the most interesting detective work you had to do to make this movie, to find the people you interviewed, and to find the footage that you - the archival footage that you use in the film?
NELSON: You know, I've made a number of historical films. So one of the things that we really do and see as part of our work is to find, you know, new historical film, find new stills and music, and find new and different people. We really wanted to find cops. We really wanted to find, you know, former FBI agents and informers, and we really targeted that and went after that. But we also talked to a lot of people who are part of the Black Panther Party. And we really wanted to talk to people who were what was called the rank-and-file, you know, just the everyday Panther who just worked and became a Black Panther. And so we really went after trying to find those people all over the country and also wanted to interview women and find a number of Panther women.
GROSS: And why was that important, finding women?
NELSON: Well, one of the things we were told early on in making the film was that by the early '70s, the majority of Black Panthers were women, which is something that, you know, I never knew, I never thought of, most people don't know. But there were a lot of Panther women. Even if you don't know that, you know, when you look at the old pictures, there's a lot of women and women, you know, looking very strong and determined. And so, you know, we wanted to get that point of view 'cause it was something that we hadn't heard. But I also think that from doing other films on the civil rights movement, that women are kind of the unsung heroes so many times of the whole civil rights movement, of that whole era a lot of times. You know, we talk about the men 'cause the men were pushed to the front or walked to the front. And the women so many times, you know, in that era are in the background. But they were the backbone of the Panthers, and they were the backbone of so much of the civil rights movement.
GROSS: Were they in leadership positions? Were they kind of relegated to answering phones? Were they taken advantage of sexually? Taken advantage of sexually - I mean exploited.
NELSON: I think all of the above. I mean, I think women were in leadership positions in the party. That was certainly the policy of the party. You know, Kathleen Cleaver was kind of world famous. She was an icon of the era. Elaine Brown, after the period that the film really illustrates, you know, was the head of the Black Panther Party for a time. So women were really, you know, in leadership positions. But they also, you know, had very bad experiences. Some women in the party were sexually exploited. I don't think the party - the Black Panther Party was any different from, you know, most institutions or things that were happening at the time except, you know, I think maybe, you know, as the party went on, again, after the period that we talk about, there were some really negative experiences for some women in the party.
GROSS: Did you talk to any African-American cops who were involved?
GROSS: What kind of position did they feel that they were in?
NELSON: The African-American cops we talked to really we talked to about the Fred Hampton murder, and they were very, very vocal. A group of black law enforcement officers really did some amazing things back then to talk about the fact that Fred Hampton was murdered. And that it, you know, it wasn't a normal police action, as they saw it, to go in and murder somebody while they're sleeping. And they were very vocal and did press conferences back then. And we found a couple of officers who do those press conferences back then and were able to interview them today about what they saw of Fred Hampton's murder.
GROSS: So what film is next for you?
NELSON: "The Black Panthers: Vanguard Of The Revolution" is part of a kind of a very loosely related three-part series. So that's the first film that we're doing. The next film that we just started working on, we're going to hopefully start shooting next month, is a film on historic black colleges and universities - very different from the Black Panther Party. It's called "Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story Of HBCUs." And it tells the story of how black colleges helped change and form the America that we know. And then we're working on a huge film on the Atlantic slave trade and the business of the trade and how the dealing in human bodies has occupied four different continents and is something that shaped the world we live in.
GROSS: Well, Stanley Nelson, thank you so much for coming back to our show.
NELSON: It's my pleasure to be here. Thank you.
GROSS: Stanley Nelson directed the new documentary "The Black Panthers: Vanguard Of The Revolution." Coming up, Milo Miles reviews the debut album by a band which he says updates traditional Mexican dance party folk music for modern American listeners. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.