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Remembering History: A New View of The Black Panthers

A short scene analysis paper I wrote in a Spring 2019 course, Social Justice and the Documentary Film

Stanley Nelson’s 2015 documentary, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution reveals a new side to an old story. The film explores the formation, momentum, and ultimate downfall of the Black Panther Party (BPP) in the 1960s, providing a much more complex and multidimensional perspective of the party’s place in American history than it has typically been granted. Most U.S. history textbooks remember the Panthers as violent, anti-white militants—the other, darker side of the nonviolent civil rights movement of the era. As Nelson himself explained in an interview with PBS in 2016, “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 so many people joined, what they accomplished, and why it fell apart." Through his documentary, Nelson proves to us that the common perception Americans have of the BPP is only part of the picture. Nelson changes the narrative surrounding the party, conveying a sense of intimacy with and empathy for the Panthers, through his substantial use of interviews, archival footage, and juxtaposition of mainstream narratives with Panthers’ own stories.

Nelson begins his film with the old parable of several blind men trying to describe an elephant by only feeling certain parts of its body; inevitably, the men are unable to fully understand what the elephant is. Immediately, the filmmaker sets up the BPP as that misunderstood elephant and establishes the goal of the film to portray a more rounded understanding of the party’s story. Early on, Nelson introduces us to some of the key leaders of the Black Panther Party, Huey Newton and Bobbly Seal, and creates a sense of the tumultuous historical context in which the party arose; in the 1960s, the Vietnam war was on Americans’ minds and the civil rights movement was on the rise. In an atmosphere of both rising anger and rising hope, the Panthers situated themselves at the forefront of a revolution. The bulk of the film documents the growth of the BPP, the ideals it fought for, and the challenges it faced, one of the greatest obstacles being the FBI’s relentless persecution of the party. Nelson highlights the negative rhetoric used by politicians to antagonize the BPP and he exposes the FBI counterintelligence program that sought to “neutralize” and “destroy” the Panthers, whom they labelled “militants,” “terrorists,” and “black nationalists.” In the end, Nelson demonstrates how the FBI’s exploitation of rifts within the party led to its demise, however, the audience is left with a sense that the Panthers left a long-lasting impact on the American revolutionary spirit.

In his essay, “What Gives Documentary Films a Voice of Their Own,” Bill Nichols writes that the voice of a documentary “reveals a distinct form of engagement with the historical world” (Nichols 44). Additionally, Nichols tell us that “the voice of a documentary conveys a sense of what the filmmaker’s social point of view is and of how this point of view becomes manifest in the act of making the film” (Nichols 45). The voice of The Black Panthers certainly provides us with a sense of Nelson’s own social point of view, and of the way in which he engages with history and wants us to engage with it as well. The filmmaker gives special attention to the Panthers’ side of the story, presenting events of the past through their eyes, and including perspectives from the government, police, and media only to invalidate those views as simple fabrications that obscured a more complex truth. As such, Nelson seems to want his viewers not necessarily to side with the Panthers over anyone who criticized them, but instead, to side with truth and complexity over deception and the tendency to group others neatly into boxes. Nelson does not try to conceal the violence and anger of the Panthers’ movement, but instead, he communicates that their violence did not define them. For instance, he demonstrates the compassion of the party through its free breakfast for children program. He also shows us the racial diversity of supporters in some BPP rallies, dispelling the misconception that Panthers hated white people. Overall, Nelson argues in his film that we must remember the Panthers as more than mere militants; we must also remember them as real human beings who were hurt, oppressed, and willing to do whatever it took to achieve justice.

Nichols goes on to explain in his essay that “each voice retains a uniqueness. This uniqueness stems from the specific utilization of forms and modes, of techniques and style in a given film, and from the specific pattern of encounter that takes place between filmmaker and subject” (Nichols 46). The uniqueness of Nelson’s voice in The Black Panthers is largely defined by his editing style of weaving together rich interviews of former BPP members with supporting archival footage. At some points in the film, while an interviewee is describing a BPP rally or even the clothing style of Panther members, Nelson will bring his or her words to life by showing us real footage from those moments. Other times, an interviewee might recount a violent scene while, in the background, sounds of gunshots are entwined with his or her voice. Nelson often uses archival videos and audio to tie together the past and present, forcefully creating a sense of storytelling, almost like a picture book which pairs words with vivid illustrations. Nichols also tells us in his essay that “much of the power of documentary… lies in its ability to couple evidence and emotion in the selection and arrangement of its sounds and images” (Nichols 57). Through interweaving spoken facts and the retelling of events with sounds, images, and videos from the past, Nelson skillfully couples evidence and emotion, logos and pathos, pulling his audience further into his film and bringing them closer to the lives of the people in it. Moreover, by relying heavily on interviewees and deciding not to include any other form of narration, Nelson lets the voices of Panthers drive the arch of the film, emphasizing that this is their story, as told from their own mouths.

Additionally, in The Black Panthers, the “specific pattern of encounter that takes place between filmmaker and subject” (Nichols 46)—or in other words, the way that the filmmaker engages with his subject throughout the film—is also marked by juxtaposition. Nelson repeatedly uses archival footage and audio recordings of American presidents, news reporters, and even civilians explicitly perpetuating the idea that the Panthers were dangerous and in need of destruction. He almost always juxtaposes such clips with interviews of BPP members, stressing again that this documentary is about seeing beyond the artificial mainstream narrative of the party, and finally hearing what Panthers have to say for themselves. For instance, early in the film, immediately after we see a 1967 clip of Ronald Reagan declaring, “I don’t think that… guns [are] the way to solve a problem… anyone who would approve of this kind of demonstration must be out of their minds,” the filmmaker displays old pictures of Panthers armed with guns, with upbeat, funky music playing in the background—certainly not music one would associate with “terrorists.” At the same time, voices of BPP interviewees speak of their attraction to the “the boldness [and] the courageousness” of the party. The music and the pieces of interviews that the filmmaker uses here all starkly contrast the view that Reagan expressed, displaying a new side to the Panthers’ violence. Instead of being some radical, crazy tactic, their violence could also be seen as a symbol of their willingness to be bold and brave and never back down in the fight for what was right. Thus, the “pattern of encounter… between filmmaker and subject” (Nichols 46) is one where the filmmaker frequently presents contrasting perspectives on what the BPP stood for and intentionally privileges one over the other as more authentic.

A close analysis of one scene in the documentary exemplifies the ways in which Nelson interweaves footage and uses juxtaposition to convey his point of view. The scene from approximately 1:12:53 to 1:16:21 in the film documents the police’s killing of Fred Hampton, a prominent member of the BPP, in 1969. Prior to this scene, the film expanded on the FBI’s tactic of forcing people connected to the BPP to be informants. One such informant was William O’Neal, Fred’s personal bodyguard, who supplied the FBI with the floor plans and blueprints of Panthers’ apartments, including those of Fred’s apartment in Chicago. At the beginning of the scene, over archival footage of a car driving at night, we hear Hampton’s wife, Deborah Johnson (also a BPP member), starting to recount what happened the night of her husband’s death, explaining how William O’Neal drove her to her apartment. Soon after, an archival clip of a news broadcast reports on the raid on Fred’s apartment, followed by images and videos of the State Department’s re-created model of the apartment, illustrating the fore-planing that went into staging a false story of the raid for the public. After old footage of the State Attorney denouncing Fred’s “violent and criminal reactions” in response to “announced police officers” in his home, Deborah reappears on the screen to counter, “we received no warning.” We then see another interview with Blair Anderson who offers further descriptions of the murder, which are supplemented with photos from the crime scene and some audio of news reports from 1969. The scene ends with a still image of Fred’s dead body on his bloody apartment floor, after an archival clip of a woman (likely Deborah) retelling that when the police finally stopped shooting, one said “he’s good and dead now.”

Many elements of this scene work together to create intimacy and stimulate empathy. The interweaving of interviews with old news broadcasts, archival footage of a young Deborah, and images from the crime scene is effective in bringing us deeper into Deborah’s own experience in the moment of the raid, allowing us to empathize and better understand the situation from her point of view. Additionally, Nelson’s juxtaposition of the State Attorney’s account of the police raid with Deborah’s account demonstrates that there was a side of the story concealed by the constructed public narrative; the attorney talks of the “extreme viciousness of the black panther party,” but through Deborah, Nelson only illustrates the “extreme viciousness” of the police that night. Moreover, about halfway through the scene, there is a turning point where we really get into the violence that occurred in Fred’s apartment. After interviewee Blair Anderson appears on screen recounting, “bullets start coming through the walls, plaster flying,” the cuts between shots get slightly faster. As the scene progresses and we find out more about what happened on the night of Fred’s death, the increased cutting pace enhances the sense of escalation. After Deborah says, “everything was… going so fast,” the filmmaker quickly cross cuts back and forth between Deborah and Blair as the two give a play by play of what happened when the police were on the scene. Starting in these quick cross cuts and until the end of the scene, Nelson only shows us extreme close ups of Deborah’s face whenever she speaks so that we pay particular attention to her expressions and emotions. Although there is some somber music at the beginning and end of the scene, no background music plays while the interviewees speak; the focus remains solely on their voices. The quickened cutting pace and tighter shots coupled with the absence of background music makes the scene all the more captivating and immersive for the viewer, who is forced to listen and look closely so as not to miss a single shot, facial expression, or word. Nelson uses the techniques of film in this scene to demand that his audience fully witness and come into the story unfolding on the screen.

In complicating our understanding of the Black Panther Party, providing an intimate portrait of their motivations, actions, and convictions, Nelson does the Panthers a great act of justice. For too long, the Panthers have been the victims of what Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie famously calls a single story. A single story dehumanizes and degrades any person or group of people who are subject to it. In complexifying and humanizing the Panthers, using the tools of film—particularly, the interweaving of different types of footage and juxtaposition—to artfully add the intimacy and empathy that has been missing in our national memory of the BPP, Nelson combats the single story and sets an example for us to do the same.


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