‘Black Panthers’: A Cautionary, Revelatory Tale, As Told By Stanley Nelson Jr.


There is a saying, “Documentaries may not be able to change the world, but they can always be great art.”Problem is, most would agree with only half this statement.

Consider Errol Morris’s 1988 “The Thin Blue Line,” which eventually helped free an innocent man convicted of murder. Non-fiction films can be great art. But they clearly can make a difference as well.

The eighth annual Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival lineup includes quite a few that aim to do just that.

Among them are “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” from director Stanley Nelson Jr., who will receive this year’s Career Achievement Award. Known for his work examining the history and experiences of African-Americans, his previous films include “Freedom Riders” in 2011 and “Jonestown: The Life & Death of People’s Temple” in 2006.

“Black Panthers” documents the revolutionary black nationalist and socialist organization, and its triumphs and tribulations from 1966 to 1973. Some content presents no surprises: interviews with leaders Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver; iconic images of the group carrying guns through the streets; demonstrations responding to Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and, later, to the jailing of Mr. Newton; and a drawing of Mr. Seale tied to a chair at his trial.

However, some archival images are surprising and less known—for example, those showing the Black Panthers’ free breakfast program for poor African-American children.

The film’s opening archival footage does not focus on famous Black Panthers. Instead, the audience sees people who do not possess the threatening demeanor associated with the organization. Present-day interviews present likable former members, as well, who could be anyone’s neighbor or colleague. Even more evocative is that many of them are women who speak with compassion, vitality and wisdom.

“During the 1970s, women made up most of the organization,” according to Mr. Nelson. “But the film isn’t about the women. It is about the rank-and-file who played an important role in the movement—what they did, why they left.”

These same interviews serve another non-menacing purpose: conveying the movement’s intent to gain better education, housing, justice and jobs for African-Americans, despite contrary belief. As one former member explains, they “had vigor and youthful ideals, but the movement came apart because of loneliness and poverty, because co-founder Huey Newton became erratic.”

Out of these explanations come statements that remain potent to this day: “We are not trying to kill the whites … We hate oppression, not white people.”

Bringing the Black Panther story to fruition was a long process for Mr. Nelson, he said. The film took seven years to make—four of them devoted to fundraising alone. He also ran into several roadblocks. Many Black Panther activists had died, he said, including Mr. Nelson during a gunfight in 1989 and Mr. Cleaver nine years later.

But archival footage existed and so did the rank-and-file members, including Kathleen Cleaver, who was married to Mr. Cleaver from 1967 to 1987. Mr. Nelson said he received encouragement from both former members and people unassociated with the organization, which inspired him to complete the film.

“I enjoy making films,” Mr. Nelson said. “I enjoy the journey. I want to change the way people look at the Panthers. You can take many things away from the movie, like how the Movement is relevant today. We have racism now that we wouldn’t have known a year ago.”

“The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” will screen on Saturday, December 5, at 8:15 p.m. at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. A Q&A session with Stanley Nelson Jr., who received this year’s Filmmakers Choice Award during the eighth annual Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival, will follow. Tickets are $15 and $13 for seniors. A festival pass is $125, which includes all screenings and events. For more information, call (631) 725-9500, or visit baystreet.org.

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