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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

by filmmaker Stanley Nelson


I was 15 years old in 1966 when the Black Panthers were formed. The Panthers were talking about problems that had to do with our lives in the North, and as a New Yorker I was naturally attracted to them. Their look, their language, their boldness—it spoke to me.

At 20, I went to see The Murder of Fred Hampton, a documentary about the Chicago Police murder of a Panther leader. The film gave me even more insight into the Panthers, but it also made me look at the power of film to move audiences. It lit a fire inside of me to make films, and I’ve been on this path ever since.

Seven years ago, I finally set out to tell the story that had been in my mind all of those years. No one had documented the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party, and I wanted to shed light on a history that had never been told in its entirety. There is so much we think we know about the Party, but I wanted to go beyond the oversimplified narrative of the Panthers as prone to violence and consumed with anger, and explore why hundreds of young people joined, what they accomplished, and why it fell apart.

I also wanted to lift up the voices of rank and file members. We often hear about the leadership, but not unlike the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement, the rank and file Party members were the lifeblood of the organization. They delivered Party newspapers, tested people for sickle cell anemia, registered voters, and fed thousands of children through their Free Breakfast programs. These were people in their teens and twenties who demonstrated an enormous amount of courage, discipline and organization. And despite their missteps and the FBI’s campaign to bring them down, what was so clear to me was that their motivation came from their undying love for their community.

Now, almost 50 years after the founding of the Panthers, we find ourselves at the start of a new movement for justice and equality led, yet again, by young people. We didn’t set out to make a film that was about today, but as we began shooting, it became painfully clear that so many things the Panthers were fighting for were things that are still issues today. From police brutality, substandard schools and substandard housing, to disenchantment with the political system.

I hope that young people come to see the film and reflect on the Black Panther Party, and consider the similarities—and differences—between what the Panthers tried to build, and the new movement that is taking shape today. I hope this history inspires young people, who may see their own desire for change reflected in the story of the Black Panther Party.

Ultimately, I wanted to bring this vibrant chapter in American history to life so that we can all understand it, learn from it, and make better decisions—personally and collectively.