This story is over 5 years old.


Looking Back at the Revolutionary Legacy of the Black Panthers

In his new documentary, filmmaker Stanley Nelson shows how the same issues that spurred the Black Panthers to organize 50 years ago are still relevant today.
Black Panthers on parade at a Free Huey rally in DeFremery (a.k.a. Bobby Hutton Memorial) Park in West Oakland on July 28, 1968. Photo courtesy of Stephen Shames

Gun-toting activists, revolutionaries, community leaders, criminals—the Black Panther Party and its members have been called many things over the years. But in the new documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, filmmaker Stanley Nelson attempts to present a unified portrait of the group, in the process capturing how the same issues that spurred the Black Panthers to organize 50 years ago are still relevant today: police brutality, a skewed justice system, outright racism, and draconian prison sentences.


The film takes us through the rise and the fall of the BPP and covers the 1966–1973 time period. That era saw riots rock the inner cities, the Vietnam conflict rage, and the Civil Rights movement in full effect. The Black Panthers demanded equality, at the point of a gun if need be, but they were branded as criminals for their efforts. They walked the streets of California openly armed like a militia, and monitored law enforcement as they went about their lives. The world was in shock at the group's brazen attitude, a mentality that hip-hop later embraced in its own way later.

The Panthers' militant stance made them easy targets for J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and the Bureau's secret counter-intelligence program, COINTELPRO. With the feds hounding them at every step, leveling indictments and putting their key members in prison, the BPP faced tremendous obstacles as they fought to provide food and other social services to their communities. Informants infiltrated their ranks at an alarming rate on the FBI's behalf, dooming the original Black Panther Party even if it spawned successor movements that remain active in America.

VICE got with director Stanley Nelson to get his thoughts on the Black Panther Party back then and what it means today.

VICE: When did you first hear about the Black Panther Party?
Stanley Nelson: I was 15 and living in New York City when the Panthers came into being, and like so many people I was really moved by the Panthers, by everything about them. The way they dressed—they looked so cool. They were very attractive to the young people from the cities. I think the Panthers changed the way that a lot of African Americans saw themselves and their role. Up until this time we did not see black people confront white people and put our finger in their face and say, "Fuck you, I'm gonna do what I need to do." We didn't see that.


A group of seven small children walk to school with books in hand. Photo courtesy of Stephen Shames

What influenced the Black Panther Party to start advocating for change in their communities?
I think the Panthers were influenced by what was happening in Latin America. They were influenced by the traditional Civil Rights movement of Martin Luther King. They saw what was working and what didn't work. The Civil Rights movement, part of the traditional Civil Rights movement, was a very kind of polite way of being: We're going to show you that we are better than this white mob in Mississippi. We're going to show you that we're better and then you have to choose a side.

I think the Panthers said, We know that a certain number of people are going to be alienated by the way we look, by the way we act, by our aggressiveness, by our confrontations. We know that a certain number of people both white and black are going to be alienated by this, but there's also going to be a number of people that are going to gravitate to us when they see that, and those are the people that we want. That's where the Panthers were coming from.

When did they start attracting the attention of the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover?
It was very early on. By the time they invaded the Sacramento courthouse, the attention of J. Edgar Hoover was there. J. Edgar Hoover said that the breakfast for children's program was the most dangerous thing that the Panthers were doing, [and he] had a problem with black people and he had that problem from way back. He wanted to keep the status quo. He felt like that was his job, to have no change in the country. To have black men with guns and on the nightly news talking about radical change in this country was naturally something that would attract J. Edgar Hoover's attention. His belief was that it had to be destroyed.


Should the Black Panthers be classified as criminals?
I think that I would have to say that there were criminal elements in the Panthers. By and large, they weren't criminal in their philosophy, but there were some criminal elements. There were some people that had been and were criminals. There are incidents that are documented of the Panthers hijacking a bread truck, and it probably wasn't a sanctioned action, but these were Panthers who did this and they did [other] things that they shouldn't have done.

What about their leaders—Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver and Fred Hampton?
Their time in the Black Panther Party, they were much more activists than criminals. Especially the time that we covered in the film, '66-'73. Cleaver had engaged in some criminal activities before that, the same with Bobby and Huey… and Fred Hampton was just murdered. By and large at that point, in those years, they were activists.

Black Panthers from Sacramento at a Free Huey Rally in Bobby Hutton Memorial Park in Oakland in 1969. Photo courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch

How did the Feds infiltrate the Black Panther Party?
They didn't have a lot of screening processes on who joined, and they were riddled with informers. An informer and an infiltrator—those are very strange individuals. Some people did it for money. A lot of times they join because they want to feel important, like they are part of law enforcement—the excitement of living a dual life. A lot of them are not well balanced human beings to do that kind of thing. What was essential was that the Panthers didn't have the screening process that was going to weed you out. There was no way that they were going to weed you out and nobody understood that this was being done to the extent that it was being done. They understand that there might be infiltrators, but they didn't know to what extent the FBI might go.


What impact did the Black Panthers have on hip-hop?
We would never have hip-hop without the Black Panthers. That's why so much of hip-hop is fascinated with the Panthers. It's the whole attitude that you couldn't have without the Panthers, and that's essential. You can't mention that time period without mentioning the war in Vietnam. A lot of the Panthers were veterans and were used to carrying guns, and there was this feeling that if you were going to die in Vietnam, maybe you better push for change here in the United States. One of the things we tried to do in the film viscerally was make you feel that this was a different time, that this was a revolutionary time, but also a very positive time. We tried to give you that look, and the music—not only have people talk about those times but try to take you back there.

What is the Black Panthers' legacy?
Hopefully the legacy is, what we want people to take away from this, is that these were young people who felt that they could make a change. By and large, they were young people who wanted to change things for African Americans and for this country. They made mistakes. Was everything they did right? No way. But in general, the rank and file joined the Panthers because they wanted to make change. These were young people who were able to create a movement that we are talking about 50 years later. They saw that they could be instruments of change. Take away the positive from it, you can make change and learn from the successes and the failures of the Panther movement.


Older woman wearing flower dresses with bags from People's Free Food Program, one of the Panthers' survival programs.

How do the issues the Black Panthers were fighting against still affect the African American community today?
The issues that the Black Panther Party were fighting against are still very prevalent today. If you look at the ten-point program—We want to end police brutality; we want decent schools; we want decent housing; we want employment; we want to end these crazy prison terms for black people—all of these things are as relevant today as they were back then.

And they're relevant today because they never got solved. It's not like these issues are turning up again—they were never solved. It's my contention that we've had police brutality for the last 50 years and before that. The only thing is now we're seeing it filmed on camera. And there's no denying it. One of the most amazing things about making this film and getting it out there is how relevant it is today.

The film premieres on Wednesday.

Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.