When you make documentaries about the Black experience in America, as director Stanley Nelson does, they have a habit of staying timely. Amid the national protests that erupted after the killing of George Floyd, his work has only become more vital. (Nelson’s 2015 film, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, is currently streaming free at PBS.org.) As part of Vulture’s View From Home series, we caught up with him to discuss not only his experience in quarantine but also his thoughts on the current movement against racism and policing.
I was quarantined in New York City, in Harlem. But we [recently] came up to Martha’s Vineyard. We had heard from some friends of ours who live up here that there was some yelling at people with New York license plates. But we got here a week and a half ago and it’s been very welcoming. We’re not at that point anymore where [the virus] is felt to be a New York thing.
My kids had been wanting to come to Martha’s Vineyard for a month. And I was like, “It’s too cold; you don’t want to be there.” We were here three days when George Floyd got murdered. My 21-year-old twins demanded to go back to New York and become part of the protests. Frankly, I was a little pissed. But they were like, “We have to be part of what’s going on.” So we drove them back, and they are still there, protesting every day. I’m really proud that they insisted. I was wrong. I’m glad they’re out there.
Young people are kind of shocked by where this country really is. Older people are not in the same way. Especially for African-Americans, each generation wants to think it’s over. Okay. Finally. Fucking finally, you can rest. And that’s not what happens. I don’t mean just recent generations. After slavery for African-Americans ended, one of the problems was that African-Americans didn’t talk about it, because they just wanted it to be over. We don’t have the monuments about slavery that they have in Europe to the Holocaust. We don’t have the reminders of how horrible it was. So you have this narrative that’s not real, where we celebrate the Confederacy. We name Army bases after their generals, and put up statues of them. These people were enslavers.
The Panthers started in 1966 because of the systemic violence by the police. And one of the reasons why the Panther movement took off like a rocket was because young Black people all over the country said, “Yeah, that’s happening to me in Chicago.” “That’s happening to me in New York.” “It’s happening to me in the Navy.” And the same thing is happening now.
One of the big differences now is that this is a leaderless movement, by design. So many times in the civil-rights movement, when the leaders faltered, the movement faltered. So this movement is not based on personality; this is based on truth and justice. But there are similarities. The whole idea of the civil-rights movement was to make people see what was going on in the South, so they’d have to make a choice: Which side are you on? In many ways that’s what’s happening today. We’re seeing the same thing with peaceful marchers against police brutality being brutalized by the police. Then you have people from the Trump administration saying that what we see is not what we saw. It’s becoming much clearer that you do have to make a choice.
One of the things that I’ve found, because I’ve done a number of films about it, is that there’s a certain connectedness that people have who were part of Freedom Summer. It’s a huge part of their lives. And many of the people involved in those things, or the Black Panther Party, have stayed in contact and stayed involved. We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. And I think that that’s what these movements and protests do. They make us part of something bigger. Everybody doesn’t have to be Martin Luther King. You can just go out and have your body add to the masses of this massive movement.
Right now, filmmakers have to look in their conscience and ask, What are the films I want to make? The best thing that white filmmakers can do at this point is help a filmmaker of color make their film. And if you don’t want to do that, then you need to really look at yourself and look at what your motives are. I hope filmmakers understand, this is not an opportunity for white filmmakers to get another commission. I don’t believe that we need to see films about African-Americans by white filmmakers. We’ve done that.
Name me five films by Black people about a white person. Name me five. Roger Ross Williams made one. I made two. And how many films can you name by white people about Black people? You know what I’m saying? A lot of times when I say something like this on a panel, what white folks say is, “Oh, Stanley, we’d love for you to make a film about white people. We’d love for you to make a film about the Holocaust.” And I’m like, What?
Think about the decision-makers. I’m working on a project now where we’re going around pitching it to different networks and cable providers. We’ve done three or four pitches. There has not been a Black person, or a person who’s not white, in any of those pitches. Not one. And that’s standard. Until you have more people in the decision-making process who can make decisions and be in the room, people are going to continue to green-light a lot of the same things.
My next project is about the Tulsa massacre. It’s with Russell Westbrook’s company. Russell spent 11 years in Oklahoma, and when he first had a chance to leave, he didn’t — unlike Kevin Durant. He stayed, so he has ties there. Tulsa is one of those mythical stories in the Black community. It’s starting to get some traction, and people are starting to look it up and know something about it. It’s like the Black Panthers: Everybody’s heard of them, or thought they knew about it. But there was so much more that people didn’t know. I think that those can sometimes be really enlightening stories.
There were 70 or 80 Black towns established in the West after the Civil War. People felt that there was this huge country [and] we could find a place where we could live in peace and make our own lives. And Tulsa was the most successful of those. There’s incredible footage of Tulsa before the riots. People sitting on their porches. You can see the pride in their community. There’s the Black sheriff with a badge, and Black people with guns. Black people herding cattle.
I don’t think there’s any footage of the riot. But there’s footage of the aftermath. You see the burnt town peeking through the rubble. Over a thousand homes destroyed. We’re talking about probably the biggest racial riot in the history of the country. I’m really excited about the project. And the idea is not only for it to be a historical documentary, but also go into some of the things that are happening in Tulsa today as they try to find where the mass graves are. Trump was going to have his first rally there, and it was going to be on Juneteenth. Once again, it’s this purposeful slap in the face of Black people.
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