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Black Panthers Filmmaker to Young People: “You Can Make Change”

Emmy Award-winning director Stanley Nelson said he hopes his latest documentary, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, can be used as a “tool” to help today’s activists find ways to change the country.

Nelson was speaking to Emerson students and faculty and members of the Boston community following a screening of his film in the Bright Family Screening Room on April 7.

The screening was the last of the Bright Lights series for the semester, and followed the It’s All True student film showcase hosted by Nelson on April 6.

Audience members asked Nelson about his incorporation of humor, the Black Lives Matter movement, and what he hopes viewers take away from his documentary.

“I hope it’s a tool,” he said, noting that while the Panthers may not be models, they can still serve as an inspiration in calling for social change. “Young people can understand that you can make change. I have great confidence in young people. We’ve seen things change, the attitudes of young people.”

Associate Professor and Visual and Media Arts Graduate Program Director Marc Fields introduced Nelson with an anecdote about his late mother, a psychologist and social activist who focused on a Chicano group called the Brown Berets, modeled after the Black Panthers. Fields said Nelson’s documentary was the last film she watched in her lifetime, and she was thrilled to hear it would be shown at Emerson.

“Thank god someone is still trying to correct the whitewashing of history,” Fields said in his introductory speech.

Nelson’s documentary offers insight into the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, through interviews with former Panthers, former police officers, historians, journalists, and writers.

As shown in the documentary, the Black Panther Party first formed as a coalition to promote self-defense in black communities in California. Although they considered themselves nonviolent revolutionaries, the federal government declared them a threat to national security and began brutalizing the group, spying on them, and facilitating divides within the Party. As the story of the Black Panther Party unfolds, viewers see a compilation of clips from newscasts, press conferences, and personal video clips, in addition to the firsthand accounts of witnesses. Audience members caught a glimpse of problems that arose within the Party as well, including sexism and addiction.

“We were a phenomenon, the way we walked, and talked, and dressed,” said Erica Huggins, a former Panther who appeared in the documentary. “We had swag.”

In the conversation following the film, moderated by Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies Assistant Professor Cara Moyer-Duncan, Nelson discussed the ongoing struggle for equality that African Americans face.

“The United States was set up so that you have ways to struggle, and there will always be a struggle,” he said. “That’s what’s so great about this country, and that’s what’s so great about us as African American people. We’ve got a mission.”

After the screening, Evan McDonald ’17 noted the way Nelson’s documentary corrected many preconceived notions about the Black Panthers without making the Party out to be perfect. He said young activists could be encouraged by the Black Panthers, but should also learn from their missteps.

“A lot of people don’t think of the Panthers as community leaders, they think of them as militants,” he said. “The Panthers should be an inspiration…but you have to learn from history to go forward.”

Stanley Asiegbulem ’17 highlighted the importance of these kinds of stories in order to combat media bias and accurately communicate activists’ messages.

“It’s great to have somebody reframe the narrative of the Panthers,” he said. “The narrative of black movements is so important, now more than ever—especially with the Black Lives Matter movement—because a lot of people don’t know much about the movement because of how it’s framed in the media.”

In the discussion, Nelson said that on top of motivating and inspiring young black revolutionaries, the goal of the film is to educate as many people as possible.

“We’re not trying to preach to the choir,” he said. “We really wanted to make a film that reaches as many people as we can.”