MSNBC’s ‘Model America’ Examines Myth of ‘Racial Utopia’ Through the 1990 Phillip Pannel Shooting

“On the surface, it will look like everything is fine,” co-director Michelle Major told TheWrap

Model America

MSNBC’s “Model America” exposes the myth that Teaneck, NJ was a post racial utopian society for Teaneck, NJ by delving into the horrific shooting of Phillip Pannel in 1990.

Growing up in Teaneck, New Jersey, co-director Dani Goffstein first learned about Phillip Pannel, a 16-year-old Black man killed by a white police officer, when his father pointed out a yellow house as they walked home from synagogue. The story of injustice in what many label as a model community of America stayed with him into adulthood when the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri prompted Goffstein to examine the similarities of the cases.

“There were two different narratives of what what happened there,” Goffstein told TheWrap. “There was the one from the cop saying that this guy was trying to like shoot him or assault him and the witnesses saying he had his hands up saying ‘don’t shoot.’”

The first episode of the four-part docuseries, which will air Saturday, Sept. 24 at 10 p.m. in advance of episode 2 airing on Sunday, Sept. 25 at 10 p.m., lays the groundwork for the devastating story by investigating how Teaneck came to be labeled as such as model community.

Teaneck’s legacy as a model American community began when it was selected by the federal government to be showcased in Japan and East Germany as an example of what democracy should look like on the local level. This reputation continued when the community became the first town in the nation to voluntarily desegregate their school system and was used as an example for Berkeley, CA for integration.

“I always thought growing up in Teaneck that that meant that we were a model to be, you know, to be looked upon by the rest of the country as something to aspire to,” Goffstein said.

For co-director Michelle Major, who grew up in Harlem, NYC, Teaneck has an “international arms open feeling,” as seen by the wide range of shops and restaurants on its main street. While great mixture of culture is a fact of the town, Major says the myth is that “there are no problems and we no longer need to worry about race relations because everything solved.”

“If you look in our country, we often say, ‘Well, there was a Black president,’ so there’s no longer racism,” Major told TheWrap. “That’s the real problem that we’re looking into with this documentary series is that a lot of times on the surface, it will look like everything is fine. But we need to continue to be aware and and continue to investigate where the problems could possibly be, so that we can avoid these kinds of things happening in the future.”

Although the Pannel family was hesitant participate to bring up the tragedy from over 30 years ago, the killing of George Floyd in 2020 was an action call for the family to bring attention to stories like Phillip’s.

“I met with the Pannel’s for the first time in 2018, they were quite reluctant at first, was very skeptical what my motivations were what, why I wanted to tell the story,” Goffstein said, adding that he got a call from the family inviting him to film a march prompted by Floyd’s killing that was co-sponsored by the Phillip Pannel foundation. “It was the perfect way to bring the 30 year old story into into the present and follow them around for that whole summer filming them speaking.”

Though subsequent episodes dive deep into Gary Spath, the white police officer who shot Pannel, the first episode centers its focus on the town of Teaneck and mentions Spath toward the end of the first installment.

“We wanted to first paint the picture of what life was like in the town, how the town developed the the reputation that it did, of being a racial utopia, and set the setting so that you would understand how shocking it was when it happened,” Major said. “Gary Spath really doesn’t come into play in the story until after Philip is killed.”

Major also underscored the importance of highlighting that Phillip was “a child” in an “unfortunate situation.” “We wanted to just make sure that the audience realized that he was then as he was being called, a thug,” she said. “He was a kid in an unfortunate situation who had a gun that most probably he would have never used, and certainly not on the cops. We wanted to just set up who he was as a person, because it’s easy for people not to look at, at these young Black men and boys as people, especially if they’re carrying a weapon.

Despite trying their best efforts to interview Spath for the docuseries, Spath ultimately declined to speak with the directors.

Episode 2 of “Model America,” which premieres Sunday, Sept. 25 at 10 p.m., will showcase the changing racial dynamics in Teaneck as Black residents speak out about their experiences with white police officers.