WASHINGTON — Stanley Nelson’s new documentary “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” which screened this week at AFI Docs, is only the latest in a line of the filmmaker’s works examining the African-American experience.
But the director, honored at the Guggenheim Symposium at the National Archives on Friday, is somewhat dismissive of the idea that he feels the burden of being the “explainer.” His movies, like “Two Dollars and a Dream: The Story of Madam C.J. Walker,” “The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords” and “The Murder of Emmett Till,” focused on aspects of African-American history that may otherwise have been unknown to white audiences.
In a Q&A with the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday, Nelson quipped, “There’s this tendency to want to be that African in Tarzan movies, you know? You hear the drums and Tarzan says, ‘What do those drums mean?’ They say, ‘Oh Tarzan. Those are mad. They are mad.'” The audience laughed.
He added, “I mean, I try to make my films for black people. I feel if I make my film on the Panthers for black people, and they see something new, then obviously most white people will see something new also. Our stories are our stories. It’s a great story, part of the American story. The world story. So I am trying to tell everybody something that is new and that is hopefully entertaining.”
Nelson discussed the great lengths he and his colleagues have gone to in pursuing film footage or photos. For “Two Dollars and a Dream,” the story of the first woman to become a self-made millionaire, he sought to push the story forward by using music rather than a narrator. One of the songs he sought — and eventually found from a collector — was “Nappy Headed Blues,” which, as he found out, even mentions Madam Walker in the last verse. He is currently working on a project about black colleges and universities, a daunting task that will involve, among other things, combing through hundreds of volumes of yearbooks.
“You have got to just keep looking, and you have got to look with a positive attitude,” Nelson said.
His film “Freedom Riders,” winner of two Emmys, coincided with the 50th anniversary of the event in 2011, and while it featured extensive recollections from those who took part, Nelson and his team also landed an interview with John Patterson, Alabama’s segregationist governor at the time.
What he found, he said, was that most “people want to talk, and they love to talk about themselves.” Patterson, he said, was not apologetic, but still seemed to want to get his side of the story out, perhaps as a way to be forgiven, he said. A key is to meet with people in person to request an interview, because it is much more difficult for them to say no, he added.
Among the stories featured in “Black Panthers” is the killing of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in his apartment during a nighttime raid by Chicago police. Nelson said that it was a documentary released about a year after Hampton’s death in 1969, “The Murder of Fred Hampton,” that actually inspired his career choice.
“That made me see the power of film, and that film had a point of view,” he said.
One of the best compliments he ever received, he said, came not from a fellow filmmaker or even one of his subjects, but from a high school student in Utah. He had been screening “The Murder of Emmett Till” at the school, and “this girl said, ‘That was good.'”
“I am not lying. I would not be saying that now if that is not what I remembered,” Nelson said.
His point, he said, is that movies still have to entertain.
AFI photo: Stanley Nelson, Ann Hornaday.