Huey Newton and his defense team discuss the case during a press conference in 1968. Credit: Courtesy of Open Eye Pictures

In the pre-dawn hours of Oct. 28, 1967, Oakland Police Officer John Frey pulled over a car in West Oakland. Behind the wheel was Huey Newton, the young, strident co-founder of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Newton exited his vehicle and a struggle ensued. A few moments later, Frey lay dying on the pavement from a gunshot wound and Newton fled, later turning up at a hospital with a bullet in his side. The full force of Alameda County’s criminal justice system suddenly came crashing down on the revolutionary; he was charged with Frey’s murder.

Lise Pearlman has written three award-winning books on various aspects of Newton’s trial, including Call Me Phaedra, The Sky’s the Limit: People v. Newton, the Real Trial of the 20th Century, and American Justice on Trial: People v. Newton.

This Friday, a new documentary on the trial, produced by Pearlman, will have its world premiere at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater as part of the 65th SFFILM Festival. 

Just as the Academy Award-nominated feature documentary Attica used historical footage and interviews with key participants to illustrate our country’s history of systemic racism, so too does Pearlman’s American Justice on Trial, which argues that Newton and his defense team changed the criminal justice system by successfully challenging the way jury pools are chosen, pushing for the inclusion of more women and people of color. A rich selection of interviewees involved in the Panthers movement and in the trial itself is featured, including Bay Area reporter Belva Davis, defense attorney John Burris, retired federal judge Thelton Henderson, and Panther communications secretary Kathleen Cleaver.

Pearlman credits co-producer and Oscar-shortlisted and Emmy-nominated producer/director Abrahams with coming up with creative ways to supplement the “talking heads” segments, including courtroom illustrations, dramatic historical footage, and voice actors who could enliven trial testimony.

The film places the trial in the historic context of a nation that “was a tinderbox waiting to explode.” As the trial began, thousands of protestors gathered at the downtown courthouse shouting “free Huey!” just weeks after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. They were surrounded by National Guardsmen, a familiar sight with the Vietnam War dividing the nation.

Pearlman and producer/co-director Andrew Abrahams, co-director Herb Ferrette, and co-producers Abby Ginzberg and Robert Richter, show how Newton’s defense team turned the tables on the prosecution and used the high-profile court hearings to put American racism on trial, and argue that Newton acted in self-defense. Newton himself took the stand, and while footage of this doesn’t exist, the film utilizes voice actors and illustrations to bring the testimony to life. In court, Newton and his attorneys invoked the history of slavery and police brutality against Blacks to put the shooting in a wider context.

It is the story of the jury selection process that is at the heart of the documentary. It was groundbreaking to have a murder trial jury made up mostly of women with a Black foreman, David Harper. 

The film argues that Newton’s defense team redefined a “jury of one’s peers.” 

“It really was one of the most incredible cases of the Twentieth Century,” said Pearlman. “Before then, trial lawyers took the first twelve people who didn’t have two heads, and until 1968, juries were made up of mostly white men.”

The film uses illustrations of Newton’s trial to bring the 54-year-old case to life. Credit: Courtesy of Open Eye Pictures

Defense attorneys Charles Garry and Fay Stender made “a humongous effort” to ensure the jury was as diverse as possible, “which was all pioneering stuff,” said Pearlman.

“This sort of diversity was unheard of,” Harper says in the film. Harper was honored In 2015 by Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf, who proclaimed November 10 as “David Harper Day.” He was, according to Schaaf, “a pioneer who risked his life to serve on the otherwise all-white jury.” Harper and his family received death threats at the time and he believed he was risking his career as a banker as well.

Although Newton was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, the conviction was later thrown out on appeal because of errors by the judge.

The National Lawyers Guild wrote a handbook based on the case: Minimizing Racism in Jury Trials. Other defense attorneys immediately started using these methods to chip away at the systemically racist system of all-white juries.

When asked whether it was more difficult to write the three books on the trial or produce the new film, Pearlman said it was “definitely the film.”

Fundraising was the biggest challenge. She and her board of directors nearly gave up after nine years of effort and a number of foundation rejections. But when the Berkeley Film Foundation viewed segments of the work in progress in 2017 and awarded it a $20,000 civil rights grant, Pearlman said it represented a turning point.  “It definitely gave us more credibility and generated publicity for the subject as a ‘world-changing true story.’”

It helped that Pearlman’s most recent book on the trial had just been published in 2016. The biggest donation for the film came from Executive Producer Peter Benvenutti, a fellow attorney, and Pearlman’s husband of 48 years. 

Pearlman is excited about the film’s world premiere in San Francisco and the fact that her three grown daughters will be flying in from Atlanta, New Jersey, and Kansas for the event. 

An Oakland resident for 50 years, Pearlman wants to have an East Bay premiere at the Grand Lake Theater, but it could be a while before this happens. 

“It’s my favorite local theater, and right down the hill from me,” she said. The film is currently seeking a distributor, which prevents other local screenings for now. Two major film festivals have exhibited an interest in screening the film; Pearlman declines to name them at this early stage. 

First a book, then a documentary—can a feature film about Newton’s trial be a possibility? The recent success of The Trial of the Chicago 7 might suggest so. “Who knows?” Pearlman said, acknowledging that it could happen. 

But more important than a box-office movie to her would be the creation of an informational website devoted to diversifying the whole legal system, not just juries. “The community’s respect for the system depends on seeing people like you—diverse judges, police officers, prosecutors, and public defenders.” 

C.J. Hirschfield served for 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry, She penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, wrote regularly for Oakland Local, and has contributed to KQED’s Perspectives series. She now writes for and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.