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EXCLUSIVE: 'Black Panther' Documentary Filmmaker Says Beyonce Comparisons to the Organization and Resulting Police Controversy Are 'Overblown'

by Damon Brown 10:53 AM PST, February 24, 2016
Photo: Getty Images

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.

Photo: PBS

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."

Filmmaker Stanley Nelson Photo: PBS

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 Giuliani. 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."

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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."

Photo: PBS

The other difference? We didn't expect Beyonce to get political. She's not exactly Lauryn Hill.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 something."

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

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