Stanley Nelson is no stranger to Sundance: his new documentary, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” is his eighth to premiere at the festival. He’s also earned his fair share of acclaim, winning a Special Jury Prize in 2003 for “The Murder of Emmett Till” and two Emmy Awards in 2010 for “Freedom Riders.” But Nelson remains prolific, and his new film boasts a special kind of vitality in telling a largely-untold yet historically-essential story for film audiences. He’s already at work on his next project, but for the time being, he hopes that “The Black Panthers” will allow audiences to reflect on history with a contemporary eye.
What’s your film about in 140 characters or less?
Change was coming to America
and the fault lines were no longer ignorable. The Black Panther Party would,
for a short time, put itself at the vanguard of that change.
Now what’s it REALLY about?
“The Black Panthers:
Vanguard of the Revolution” is the first feature length documentary to showcase
the Black Panther Party, its significance to the broader American culture, its
cultural and political awakening for black people, and the painful lessons
wrought when a movement derails. The film goes straight to the source, weaving
a treasure of rare archival footage with the voices of the people who were
there: police, FBI informants, journalists, white supporters and detractors,
and Black Panthers who remained loyal to the party and those who left it. An
essential history, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” is a
vibrant chronicle of this pivotal movement that birthed a new revolutionary
culture in America.
Tell us briefly about yourself.
I have directed twelve
documentary features, including: “Freedom Summer,” “Freedom Riders,” “Jonestown:
The Life and Death of People’s Temple” and “The Murder of Emmett Till.” “The
Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” is my eighth film to premiere at
Sundance Film Festival. One of the things that is essential to me as a
filmmaker is to try and give the viewer a sense of what it has meant to be
black in America and consider this within our contemporary context. In 2014, I
was honored to be awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama.
Documentary film is my passion, which is why I co-founded Firelight Media, an
organization which provides technical support to emerging documentarians.
Biggest challenge in completing this film?
My goal was to tell a more
complete story of The Black Panther Party, one that exists beyond the existing
clips & images that have been recycled in mainstream media. The members
that I approached were involved with the Party during a time when they were
misrepresented by media and made vulnerable to attacks by the government. There
was some initial weariness and skepticism that I had to overcome. It took some
time and sincerity to endear the trust of interview subjects and those who
could grant me access to their personal archives.
What do you want Sundance audiences to take away from your film?
My hope is the film reveals
itself to be more than just thought provoking observations of our past. The
parallels between pivotal moments within the movement and events occurring in
our communities today are undeniable. To better understand the Black Panther
Party is to be able to better reflect on our own racial climate and collective
responsibility to ensure basic rights are fulfilled, not diminished, and that
voices of justice and dissent are celebrated, not silenced.
Any films inspire you?
I don’t think I can say I’m
inspired by any one film or set of films. I am inspired whenever I see a film
that’s well-crafted and where the director has something to say about our lives
today. There are so many documentary films that come out each year that have
new and unique ways of storytelling. It’s those films that inspire me.
Currently, I am in
production on “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black
Colleges and Universities,” which is the second in a series of three films I
will direct as part of a new multiplatform PBS series entitled “America
What cameras did you shoot on?
We shot on the Panasonic
Varicam HPX 2000 and HPX 2700 tapeless.
Did you crowdfund?
We did not crowd fund for this film. I spent nearly 6 years
raising funds from private and institutional sources to produce the film.
Indiewire invited Sundance Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2015 festival. For profiles go HERE.