Toni Morrison famously said that she wrote her first novel because she wanted to read it. For many artists, we create the world we want to see through our work. This drive may come from a personal place, but the films, books, songs and visual pieces we produce often shape how others see themselves and the world around them. It’s a ripple effect that can shift how an entire community understands itself. That is the power of artistic expression — and the power of self-representation.
I thought about this on Sunday morning when I saw clips from Beyoncé’s latest achievement, headlining the Coachella Music Festival. She is a master of imagery, using the most powerful symbols from the African American experience to reflect our history and our strength back at us.
It’s no wonder that she has chosen to honor the Black Panther Party and HBCUs. Without a single word she communicated her deep love and respect for an oft-maligned social movement and set of education institutions, and single-handedly introduced them into the public consciousness.
I remember exactly where I was two years ago when Beyoncé shocked the nation with her Panther-inspired performance at the 2016 Super Bowl. In fact, I had just left the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem after a sold-out screening of my documentary, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. Myself, the crew, our staff and the Panthers in the film were floored to see her bold performance — even more so because we were only nine days away from the national television premiere of our film on PBS. To call it good timing is an understatement.
Immediately the Panthers were thrust back into the national spotlight. The reactions were wild. During that nine days she was threatened with boycotts from the police union refusing her security at concerts, and praised for bringing radical politics into the mainstream. What the fury of that week revealed was that our national conversations about the Panthers had not evolved in fifty years. We were stuck in a simplistic debate about whether Black Panthers were heroes or villains. All of this as our country grappled with its own movement of young Black folks calling for an end to police brutality and state violence. It was clear that if we didn’t understand what propelled the Panthers in 1966, we would never rise to the challenge put forth by the Movement for Black Lives in 2016.
I made the film precisely to educate the country about this important social justice movement (a movement that inspired and affirmed me as a young Black man in Harlem). But also to shift the tone of conversation around the Panthers. I wanted audiences to understand what inspired hundreds of young Black women and men to devote their lives to organize their own community and take a stand against police brutality.
I wanted audiences to understand the enduring resonance of their unapologetic pride and self-preservation. I wanted to move the country beyond sensationalized portrayals of Panther leaders and police shootouts, and look at what the experience felt like and meant to the rank and file members across the country. And I wanted audiences to see how the violent repression and poor response by the federal government effectively transferred the problem to the next generation, making the Movement for Black Lives not an anomaly, but an inevitability.
In a few short minutes Beyoncé inspired a national conversation on the very subject I had devoted seven years to researching and documenting. I was just lucky to have a film that helped to move that conversation along.
On the day of the national broadcast on PBS our team launched a twitter chat moderated by April Reign (creator of #OscarsSoWhite), and we invited the entire country to watch the film, hear directly from the Panthers, grapple with the complexity of their movement and the fierce repression they experienced at the hands of the government.
By the end of the night the film had trended nationally for four hours on twitter (with comments from viewers as wide-reaching as Donna Brazille and Rep. Barbara Lee, Kerry Washington and Questlove, Charlemagne Tha God and Macklemore, and countless organizers from the Panthers and Black Lives Matter). The film broke viewership records for Independent Lens, sparked a crowdsourced syllabus on the Black Panther Party, and even inspired Bette Midler to ask then-President Obama to pardon the remaining Panthers languishing in prison.
The film became a reference point in the ensuing national conversation about the legacy of the Panthers, and naturally, we owed a debt of gratitude to Beyoncé for opening the door.
So imagine my surprise this Sunday to see Queen Bey’s two-hour tribute to Historically Black Colleges and Universities at the Coachella Music Festival. She displayed powerful imagery from the rich culture of HBCUs — stepping, drumlines, she even sang the Black National Anthem. It was a crash course in HBCU culture, and a staggeringly beautiful homage, leaving some to suggest she will single handedly raise admission numbers at HBCUs. Beyoncé laid claim to a rich legacy, inspired the community to show their pride in this heritage, but also put some muscle behind the praise.
All of this just came just two months after we premiered our latest film, Tell Them We Are Rising — The Story of Black Colleges and Universities, which examines the legacy and evolution of HBCUs over the last 150 years. Not unlike the Panther documentary, I made Tell Them We Are Rising out of a personal connection and profound respect for HBCUs (both of my parents were educated at HBCUs, a fact that changed the trajectory of our family), and a desire to document the role they have played as engines of economic mobility, political activism, and an intellectual safe space for thousands of African Americans since the end of slavery.
We all saw what happens when elected officials malign, ignore, manipulate or simply misunderstand the fundamental role HBCUs continue to play for African Americans seeking access to higher education. In order for these institutions to survive, and thrive, we need an informed public that understands their value and why they require our collective investment.
That’s why we took the film on a multi-city HBCU Campus Tour, screened it at over 400 events and used it to raise the visibility of these incredibly important, but threatened institutions.
But as one documentary filmmaker, my work can only go so far. That’s why Beyoncé’s role is so monumental. She can say very little, and catalyse so much, paving the way for others in the ecosystem to step into the light and add their contribution.
Once again, Beyoncé opened to door for the country to “catch a lesson”, and educate themselves on the history and meaning behind the symbols.
And once again, we are lucky to have a film ready to fill in the blanks and move the conversation forward.
All hail the Queen.
- Stanley Nelson, is the co-founder of Firelight Media, and an award-winning, National Humanities Medalist, MacArthur “Genius” fellow, director, writer and producer of documentaries examining the African American experience.
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