When the director and Morgan State University film professor Stanley Nelson was making his documentary about the Black Panthers, he worried that it would be difficult for viewers to understand how much tension existed in the 1960s between the police and the African-American community.
Then, last August, Michael Brown was fatally shot in Ferguson, Mo.. In April, Freddie Gray sustained a fatal spinal cord injury while in the custody of Baltimore police. Violence erupted in both cities, and Nelson realized with sorrow that the documentary's relevance no longer was in doubt.
"When we were making the film, we said, 'None of what happened makes any sense unless we can take the audience back to 1966 and 1967 and make them feel what was going on at that time,'" the director said over the phone from New York.
"In the past year, that's changed. In 1966, the Panthers wrote a 10-point program in which they demanded things like decent housing and better education and an end to police brutality. I think what's making the movie take off today is that people are seeing the film and saying, 'Oh God, it's 50 years later and nothing has changed.'"
Nelson, who has won four Emmy Awards and who was a 2002 MacArthur "genius grant" fellow, spent seven years making the documentary. "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution" began to generate buzz when it was showed in January at the Sundance Film Festival. PBS later announced that it was picking up the film for limited distribution.
But the movie — described as the first feature-length movie to look at the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party and how it shaped America — has been generating brisk box office revenue. The initial list of 14 cities has expanded to 25; it opened Friday in Baltimore.
The film chronicles the history of the militant black nationalist organization, which organized in 1966 to protect the African-American community in Oakland, Calif., against perceived police brutality. The Panthers became a beloved part of black America by offering services such as free medical clinics and a breakfast program for children. Appearing in leather, shades and Afros, they also were undeniably edgy and cool, and the movement influenced American popular culture. At its height in 1970, the party had chapters in 68 American cities.
The party's popularity among African-Americans was in stark contrast to its image in white America, where the Panthers were portrayed as a terrorist organization. When FBI director J. Edgar Hoover infamously described the movement as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country," the stage was set for what became a series of violent confrontations.
"Vanguard" is the first of three documentaries that Nelson hopes to make with the goal of rewriting African-American history. The second movie will look at historically black colleges and universities, including Morgan State. (Nelson joined the Morgan faculty this year.) The third film will explore the Atlantic slave trade.
This film sets out to chart not just the Panthers' rapid rise but their equally rapid fall. The party was disbanded in 1982, 16 years after it was founded.
Nelson conducted more than 50 interviews, including with such well-known former Panthers as law professor Kathleen Cleaver (formerly married to author Eldridge Cleaver) along with former police officers, journalists and an FBI informant. The original interviews are interspersed with archival footage.
The director was forced to make the film without input from the party's three main visionaries. Two — Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver — are long dead, and the third, Bobby Seale, declined to participate. The voices of the three leaders, however, are amply documented in the archival material. A fourth person closely associated with the Panthers in the popular imagination, activist Angela Davis, was in fact never a party member.
And the movie has been denounced by one of those interviewed. Elaine Brown, who led the Panthers from 1974 to 1977, writes on the Daily Beast website that the film "debases the Party." She accuses Nelson of producing "a piece of provocative propaganda worthy of the FBI itself."
But the movie also has staunch defenders among party insiders, including Jamal Joseph, who was 16 when he joined the Panthers in 1968.
"This film was in the hands of the right filmmaker," Joseph said.
"This story is so big, it could easily have been a miniseries," Joseph said. "But Stanley got to the heart and soul of the experience. What struck me when I saw it was how young we were, and how optimistic. The loss of the Panther Party wasn't just the loss of life and liberty. It was the loss of possibility and of hope."
If Nelson has been criticized by Brown, who views the film as a betrayal, critics on the other side question whether he is too soft on some of the Panthers who talk to the camera.
For example, the audience is encouraged to view the movement through the eyes of people like Joseph, who in the film comes across as thoughtful and reasoned — the antithesis of a hot-headed revolutionary.
But movie viewers never are told that Joseph entered an Alford plea in the 1971 killing of former Panther Sam Napier, circulation manager of the party's newspaper. (In an Alford plea, a defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges that there is sufficient evidence for the state to obtain a conviction.) Ten years later, Joseph was convicted of harboring a fugitive in connection with a 1981 armed car robbery in which two police officers and a guard were killed.
Now Joseph is a film professor and former chairman of Columbia University's Graduate Film Program, and is the executive director of two theater troupes. He estimates that he has mentored more than 1,000 teens.
Nelson knows that viewers will second-guess some of his editorial decisions.
"We don't pretend in the film that the Panthers were angels," he said. "We've been accused by the extreme left of being too hard on the Panthers, and we've been accused by the extreme right of being too easy on the Panthers. So my guess is that we're in the extreme middle, which is where we want to be."
Nelson's film makes the case that the party's demise came about in large part because of a cynical campaign of disinformation created by the FBI.
"The Panthers were great at organizing and at capturing the attention of the media," he said. "They were bad at understanding that they were going to be infiltrated, and they were bad at avoiding the internal squabbles that can rupture every movement.
"Hoover fanned those flames, [pitting] Eldridge and Huey against each other in a very systematic way that nobody at that point suspected that the FBI could or would do. They would write fake letters and do anything they could to pit those two and other Panthers against each other."
There are obvious similarities between the unrest of 1966 and that of 2015, and Nelson and Joseph hope the film will be instructive to today's activists seeking to foment social change.
Joseph thinks the Panthers' enduring legacy will have more to do with those children's breakfasts than with bullets. He wishes today's activists were as committed as their predecessors to improving life in their neighborhoods.
"The Panthers were in the community every day," Joseph said. "In between protests and uprisings and take-overs, you saw Panthers running health clinics, helping elderly people up the stairs and conducting safety patrols.
"What we have today is the retweeted revolution. When something happens, we repost it. That's what activism is these days."