The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

df0615_panthers_3_smDocumentaries covering subject matter that happens within a generation usually divides the audience between 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 they were. If you are under 50, then you may have learned about them in history class, if which case, you may only know them by myth and legend. Filmmaker Stanley Nelson (The American Experience, Freedom Summer, Wounded Knee, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple) seeks to go beyond what you think you know with this new Sundance Film Festival documentary entry.

I spoke with the film’s editor, Aljernon Tunsil, as he was putting the finishing touches on the film to get it ready for Sundance presentation. 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 a 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 senses and that no one gets lost.”

df0615_panthers_2_smThe Black Panthers is told through a series of interviews (about 40 total subjects). Although a few notables, like Kathleen Cleaver, are featured, the chronicle of the rise and fall of the Panthers is largely told by lesser known party members, as well as FBI informants and police officers active in the events. The total post-production period 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 to 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.”

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 the film. We could have made a ten-hour film, but, of course, not all of the stories would fit into the final two-hour version.”

df0615_panthers_5_smLike many documentary film editors, Tunsil prefers having interview transcripts, but acknowledged they don’t tell the whole story. He says, “One example is in the interview with former Panther member Wayne Pharr. He describes the police raid on the LA 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% 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.”

df0615_panthers_6_smTunsil is a fervent Avid Media Composer editor, which he used for The Black Panthers. He explains, “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.”

df0615_panthers_1_smFor a documentary editor, part of the experience are the things you personally learn. Tunsil reflects, “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. It’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 that he was in. That’s a powerful scene, which 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.”

df0615_panthers_4_smThroughout 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. To complete the film’s finishing, Firelight used New York editorial facility Framerunner. Tunsil continues, “Framerunner is doing the online using an Avid Symphony. To get ready, we simply consolidated the media to a single drive and then brought it there. They are handling all color correction, improving moves on stills and up-converting the standard definition archival footage.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters