EXCLUSIVE: 'Black Panther' Documentary Filmmaker Says Beyonce Comparisons to the Organization and Resulting Po

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Beyonce is one of the most-recognized stars
on the planet, but the response to the one-two punch of her Formation music video and Super Bowl
performance has been strong even for her. The video packs in an incredible
amount of Black iconography: from slavery-era Antebellum imagery deeply
ingrained into Southern – indeed, American – history to Hurricane Katrina,
which just happened a decade ago. If you were anywhere near a social network on
that weekend, you understand that saying the controversial video went “viral”
is an understatement.

But even the Formation reaction paled compared to the Super Bowl response.
Opened by Coldplay and Bruno Mars, Beyonce led her all-female squad onto the
football field in perfectly-tilted berets and black leather outfits. The tight
syncopation not only reflected locked-in choreography, but also the dancers as
an organized, cohesive unit. It reminded many of the Black Panthers.


WATCH: 'Saturday Night Live' Cast Gets in 'Formation' For Hilarious Beyonce Spoof

“It’s funny: People want to mythologize the
Black Panthers, yet criticize her. What do they want her to do, read a
manifesto?” asked Stanley Nelson, director of the acclaimed documentary, The Black
Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
. “She’s not going to do that. She was trying
to address politics in her music in a subtle way, and that’s the most you want
from an artist in that venue.” 


As much as 2001’s comparatively saccharine Bootylicious by Beyonce’s group
Destiny’s Child appeared when women’s curves were being more honored, Formation has caught the wave – or,
better yet, the tsunami – of the moment, a video response to the national conversation on police brutality with its depiction of a young boy dancing in front of police who eventually raise their hands in surrender. 

The result is a significant buzz with Black
Lives Matter supporters
and concern from conservative pundits like Rudy
. The
Miami Fraternal Order of Police
released a statement saying it would allow its
members to boycott Beyonce’s tour stop in the city on April 27. The oddest
backlash was from
the NYPD
: It reportedly wants the singer to issue an apology and to disavow
any violence towards police. 

“It is overblown either way. She just had her
dancers wearing berets and leather jackets. It’s easy to read too much into
it,” Nelson told ETonline.com. The Panthers’ radical symbolism is why he spent seven years
creating the documentary, viewable until March 18 on PBS.org.
“The Black Panthers have been mythologized by some, demonized by others.
Today’s controversy really follows the spirit of the Black Panthers: They knew
you couldn’t please everybody. The way they looked, the statements they made
pissed some people off, but it also resonated higher with others.”

RELATED: How Big Freedia Helped Beyonce Return to Her Roots on 'Formation'

It is noteworthy that politics and pop have
always gone hand in hand: Think The
Dixie Chicks criticizing George W. Bush
in the ‘00s or Sinead
O’Connor on Saturday Night Live tearing up a photo of the Pope
in the ‘90s.
“I just came back from screening my Black Panthers documentary at the Apollo
[in Harlem] when I was watching the Super Bowl,” Nelson recalled. “I was
surprised! At first, I thought I had too much Black Panthers on my mind. Then
we all started looking at each other. Then the phone started ringing.” 

Perhaps the difference is that it has been a
long time since we’ve seen such a powerful statement from an African-American
performer on Beyonce’s level.  “I don’t
think in this day we live in right now, with the so visible and highly
publicized violence by the police, that we need to qualify our statements. It’s
like saying Black Lives Matter, but White Lives Matter, too. Everyone knows
white lives matter,” Nelson said. “What we’ve seen over the years are
videotaped violence against unarmed black people. We’re talking about police
violence against African Americans, which has been unprovoked. I think for
Beyonce, it is more about the image of the Black Panthers. As I saw it, they
were wearing berets and leather jackets. Fifty years after its founding, and we
have this kind of reaction? That’s really amazing. It shows people don’t really
understand the Panthers and want them to be demons or mythical heroes. The
truth is actually somewhere in between.”


The other difference? We didn’t expect
Beyonce to get political. She’s not exactly Lauryn
. And yet, she now has everyone talking about
the future of Black America – something others have only been able to do in
their death.

“There are people who want our pop stars to
not make any statement, but I think it is great when they do, especially with
the things going on in our country,” Nelson said. “Trying to remove our pop
stars from the reality we live in is like trying to manipulate them into being
apolitical. That in itself is saying

See what Beyonce told ET exclusively backstage about her Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show performance: