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‘The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution’: Assembling the Documentary’s Varied Voices and Visuals

The film explores the history of the Black Panthers interweaving voices from varied perspectives who lived this story.

Documentaries covering relatively recent subject matter usually divide the audience into those who personally lived through the time period and those who’ve only read about it in history books. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is one such film. If you are over 50, you are aware of the media coverage of the Black Panther Party and certainly have opinions and possibly misconceptions of who its members were. If you are under 50, then you may have learned about them in history class—in which case you may only know them by myth and legend. Filmmaker Stanley Nelson (Freedom Summer, Freedom Riders, Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple and The Murder of Emmett Till) seeks to go beyond what you think you know with this 2015 Sundance Film Festival documentary entry.

The film explores the history of the Black Panthers, founded in 1966 in Oakland, Calif., interweaving voices from varied perspectives who lived this story: police, FBI informants, journalists, white supporters, detractors, those who remained loyal to the party and those who left it. Because the participants from all sides were so young in the ’60s and ’70s, they are still around to share firsthand accounts.

Panthers line up at a Free Huey rally in Oakland, July 28, 1968. Photo by Stephen Shames.

I spoke with the film’s editor, Aljernon Tunsil, as he was putting the finishing touches on the film to get it ready for presentation at Sundance. Tunsil has worked his way up from assistant editor to editor and discussed the evolution in roles. “I started in a production company office, initially helping the assistant editor,” he says. “Over a period of seven or eight years, I worked my way up from assistant to full-time editor. Along the way, I’ve had a number of mentors and learned to cut on both [Apple] Final Cut Pro and [Avid] Media Composer. These mentors were instrumental in my learning how to tell a story. I worked on a short with Stanley [Nelson] and that started our relationship of working together on films. I view my role as the ‘first audience’ for the film. The producer or director knows the story they want to make, but the editor helps to make sense of it for someone who doesn’t intimately know the material. My key job is to make sure that the narrative makes sense and that no one gets lost.”

The Black Panthers is told through a series of interviews with about 40 total subjects. Although a few notables, like Kathleen Cleaver, are featured, the chronicle of the rise and fall of the Panthers is told largely by lesser-known party members, as well as FBI informants and police officers active in the events.

Postproduction took about 40 to 50 weeks. Tunsil explains, “Firelight Films [the production company] is very good at researching characters and finding old subjects for the interviews. They supplied me with a couple of hundred hours of footage. That’s a challenge to organize so that you know what you have. My process is to first watch all of that with the filmmakers and then assemble the best of the interviews and best of the archival footage. Typically it takes six to ten weeks to get there, and then another four to six weeks to get to a rough cut.”

Director Stanley Nelson. Photo by Sam Aleshinloye.

Tunsil continues, “The typical working arrangement with Stanley is that he’ll take a day to review any changes I’ve made and then give me notes for any adjustments. As we were putting the film together, Stanley was still recording more interviews to fill in the gaps—trying to tie the story together without the need for a narrator. After that, it’s the usual process of streamlining. We could have made a ten-hour film. Of course, not all of the stories would fit into the final two-hour version.”

Like many documentary film editors, Tunsil prefers having interview transcripts, but he acknowledges that they don’t tell the whole story. “One example is in the interview with former Panther member Wayne Pharr. He describes the police raid on the L.A. headquarters of the party and the ensuing shootout. When asked how he felt, he talks about his feeling of freedom, even though the event surrounding him was horrific. That feeling clearly comes across in the emotion on his face, which transcends the mere words in the transcript. You get to hear the story from the heart—not just the facts. Stories are what makes a documentary like this.”

As with many films about the 1960s and 1970s, The Black Panthers weaves into its fabric the music of the era. Tunsil says, “About 60 percent of the film was composed by Tom Phillips, but we also had about seven or eight period songs, like ‘Express Yourself,’ which we used under [former Panther member] Bobby Seale’s run for mayor of Oakland. I used other pieces from Tom’s library as temp music, which we then gave to him for the feel. He’d compose something similar—or different, but in a better direction.”

Tunsil is a fervent Avid Media Composer editor. He says of this project, “I worked with Rebecca Sherwood as my associate editor and we were both using Media Composer version 7. We used a Facilis TerraBlock for shared storage, but this was primarily used to transfer media between us, as we both had our own external drives with a mirrored set of media files. All the media was at the DNxHD 175 resolution. I like Avid’s special features, such as PhraseFind, but overall I feel that Media Composer is just better at letting me organize material than is Final Cut. I love Avid as an editing system because it’s the most stable and makes the work easy. Editing is best when there’s a rhythm to the workflow, and Media Composer is good for that. As for the stills, I did temporary moves with the Avid pan-and-zoom plug-in but did the final moves in [Adobe] After Effects.”

Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver.

Tunsil continues, “I like the way Stanley and Firelight handle these stories. They don’t just tell it from the standpoint of the giants of history, but more from the point of view of the rank-and-file people. He’s trying to show the full dimension of the Panthers instead of the myth and iconography. He’s telling the history of the real people, which humanizes them. That’s a more down-to-earth, honest experience. For instance, I never knew that they had a communal living arrangement. By having the average members tell their stories, it makes it so much richer. Another example is the Fred Hampton story. He was the leader of the Chicago chapter of the party who was killed in a police shootout—but there was no evidence of gunfire from inside the building he was in. That’s a powerful scene that resonates. One part of the film that I think is particularly well done is the explanation of how the party declined due to a split between Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton. This was in part as a result of an internal misinformation campaign instigated by the FBI within the Panthers.”

Throughout the process, the filmmakers ran a number of test screenings with diverse audiences, including industry professionals and non-professionals, people who knew the history and people who didn’t. Results from these screenings enabled Nelson and Tunsil to refine the film.

Firelight used New York editorial facility Framerunner for finishing. Tunsil continues, “Framerunner is doing the online using an Avid Symphony. To get ready, we simply consolidated the media to a single drive and brought it there. They are handling all color correction, improving moves on stills, and upconverting the standard-definition archival footage.”

PBS Distribution recently announced it will distribute The Black Panthers in select theaters in the fall of 2015. The film is also slated for broadcast as part of PBS’ independent film series Independent Lens in winter of 2016.