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IDA Career Achievement Award: Stanley Nelson Makes History Sing

By Tom White

Stanley Nelson has, for the past quarter-century, established himself as an indefatigable chronicler of the African-American experience, bringing to light the neglected stories of intrepid warriors who fought for their rightful place in the ongoing American narrative. From Madame C.J. Walker, the first female self-made millionaire, to Ida B. Wells and the daring legion of African-American journalists in the 19th and 20th centuries, to the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement, Nelson and his team at his company, Firelight Media, have created a living history of America's ongoing struggle to realize its democratic aims of freedom and liberty.

Nelson's work has earned a raft of honors in his decades-long career, and he himself was honored with a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2002 and a Individual Peabody Award in 2015. This year alone, he earned Lifetime Achievement Awards from both the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and DOC NYC. He rounds out the year with the IDA Career Achievement Award.

Documentary caught up with Nelson by phone for a conversation about early inspirations, bringing history alive through footage and through witnesses, and the mentoring programs at Firelight Media.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I wanted to take you back to the beginning of your career. You've cited in other interviews that one of your early mentors and inspirations was the late Bill Greaves, whom IDA honored with a Career Achievement Award back in 2004. What was it about him that inspired you to get into filmmaking?

It was a number of things. One, the first job I had out of film school working in film was with Bill. But it was also inspirational for me to see him work. At that point he had his own company. He had a career as an independent filmmaker, and he also had a family that he was supporting. That was the first time I had seen that, and it affected me in a number of ways, a lot of which were more internal. To see someone who was doing that successfully gave me a model for how I could have a career.

What did he pass on to you, as mentor to mentee?

It was about hard work; Bill worked really hard. He was always thinking and always working on his films. I lived with him and his family, and we would go back and forth to New York every week together into the city; it was a couple of hours drive. And he would start rattling off things, saying, "Remind me to call this guy…remind me to re-edit this sequence…" He was always thinking about his films, and he was always working on how to make things better. That was much more important to me than any one lesson.

Your earliest work goes further back in history than your more recent work, starting with Two Dollars and a Dream, followed by The Black Press: Soldiers without Swords and Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind, all of which take place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For obvious reasons, there's not much archival footage and there weren't that many survivors from that period. How did you meet that challenge of bringing those periods of history alive?

You got it exactly right: How do you make it come alive? How do you make it sing? How do you make it entertaining? So one of the things that I try to do is find great witnesses and get people to talk. We were really fortunate in the film that we did on Marcus Garvey. We needed to find a couple of people who had actually witnessed Garvey. They were in their 90s, but they were still lively witnesses.

So many times you find people who are older, but they're talking about a time in their life that was really instrumental to them, that was really important for them. So if you can take them back there and get their eyes sparkling and get that excitement in their voices…you have gold.

We also try to use music as much as possible and anything that we can find to enliven the story. In Two Dollars and a Dream, which is the story of Madame C.J. Walker, there's no footage of her. But the film's also about other things: It's about African American women; it's about standards of beauty. We found a great film of a black beauty contest from the early '20s. This was a beautiful sequence that we paired with some music - "Brown Gal," by Louis Armstrong.

So it's about finding other ways into the material when you don't have tons of footage that's spot on.

You've also cited Eyes on the Prize as a real inspiration in your work. The Murder of Emmett Till, Freedom Riders, Freedom Summer, The Black Panthers - all those stories figure in Eyes on the Prize. What was your initial reaction to seeing Eyes on the Prize?

My first reaction was that this was real, living history. It was shocking to me how alive it was, how present it was. You have people who are telling history, and their story; they were witnesses. They were there. They were alive. And you have footage. And they're talking about life-and-death matters.

In no way when I saw Eyes on the Prize did I ever think that I would be retelling some of the stories that were in the film. In fact, when we made The Murder of Emmett Till, we'd looked at Eyes on the Prize. We said, "OK, they didn't spend that much time on it, so we can do it." When we started doing Freedom Riders, I looked at the Eyes on the Prize segment. I just kind of hung my head and said, "How are we going do this? This great little film enclosed in Eyes on the Prize is about the Freedom Riders. And we're trying to do it 15 to 20 years later, and all the people are 15 and 20 years older. So how are we going tell this story?"

From "Freedom Summer." Photo: George Ballis/Take Stock


One of the primary source materials for Freedom Summer was Bruce Watson's 2010 book of the same name. In experiencing a book as a reader, it's a kind of engagement that is very different from a cinematic engagement. When you have films that use books as primary source material, what are the challenges of transcribing not just the book into cinema but the experience of engaging a book versus the experience of engaging a film?

What I try to do is read the book and then throw it out. You're used to just starting over. I like to say that an hour and-a-half, two hour documentary film is like the introduction to a book. It's not that much material. So you have to figure out what the spine of the story is and throw out so much because you can't do what a book does - and you don't want to. How do you make those ghost stories come alive? And how do you stay true to the story? Not to the book; the book no longer matters. The story matters. And how do you not take shortcuts because you're trying to find something more dramatic? How do you get the essence of the story, but tell it in a way that's entertaining?

And in the midst of your other films, you're finding the story as you're researching the archival material and tracking down the survivors and witnesses from that period of history. Walk me through the process of finding the narrative as you're making these discoveries and hearing these stories.

One of the things that I try to do is reach out in a lot of different ways from the very first day that we start production. So, we're looking for witnesses, we're looking for newspapers, we're looking for footage. We're doing this research all the time, and it's all going on at the same time. The idea is to use every lead that you've got to find more stuff, and make the story that much deeper and that much richer.

I wanted to get back to the witnesses, the participants, the foot soldiers of history who are so key to your work. You talked about taking them back to that time. One film that comes to mind where I imagine that process was difficult is Jonestown, because the experience was so traumatic. How did you present your project to the survivors of Jonestown?

There were a number of people who had survived Jonestown, either because they didn't happen to be there that day or they had already left. We knew there were people out there. And one of the things I tried to do was to talk to people whenever I could in person. The first interviews were a little bit different from the way that I normally do them.

But we would say, "Is it OK if I just come and talk to you? I won't bring any kind of recording device. If you want, I won't even take notes. I just want to come and talk to you about the project and see if it's something you want to do." That's how I started.

And one of the things that I said early on was that I would not try to convince people to be in the film. I would tell them what we were doing. I would lay it out there, then it's up to them to say yes or no. I wouldn't try to put on my producer hat, and tell them why it's good for them to be in this film. That's really their choice to decide.

We pre interviewed a couple, a man and a woman, who were both survivors of Peoples Temple, who met afterwards and got married and had a kid. And the kid didn't know anything about their involvement in it. They finally declined to be in the film. And I said, "I totally understand. Here's my number. If you change your mind for any reason, let me know." I never heard from them again.

So, that's how we went into it. And I think that what happened, and what happens in a lot of projects like this, was that the people knew each other. A lot of them had stayed in contact, and you could tell that a lot of them had been talking to each other. And so, as we got further on into the project, when we would call people, you could tell that they had talked to somebody and that somebody had told them, "I think he's OK. I don't think he's trying to exploit us. We should talk to him."

From "The Black Panthers: Vanguards of the Revolution."  Photo courtesy of Stephen Shames.

With The Black Panthers, there was some resistance from some of the Black Panther alums. How did you convince them to be in the film?

The Panthers were in some ways very similar - but also very, very different. I think that many of the Panthers were very leery of the press. They really felt like they were mistreated by the press, and were very reluctant to talk about it. For us, it was a matter of just trying to talk to people, to tell them my honest feeling about the Panthers, which I think was probably very different from other people who had tried to do projects about the Panthers.

I would say to them, "I was 15 years old when the Panthers came into being. I was in New York. I wrote a paper in college about the Panthers. I was fascinated with the Panthers just like so many young African Americans were. And it's a film I've always wanted to make." And I said I always wanted to look at the Panthers in a different way.

But some people didn't want to be part of it. There were people we were able to track down who totally have a different life. Nobody knows they were in the Black Panther Party. They don't want anybody to know. And that's also fine.

But we also knew that there were thousands of Panthers, and since they were so young at the time, a lot of them are alive. We wanted to make sure that we had a representative sample who could tell the story. That's what we were looking for, and we were able to get that.

But I was dealing with people who a lot of times were very, very reluctant to talk. It took us seven years to make the film from the time we started writing the first proposal. And I want to think that that was one of the only good things that came out of taking that long to make a film. People would see us come back year after year after year and say, "Oh, you're still here? You're still making the film?" And they would see that we were serious. One of the things that's happened over the last few years is that thanks to the Internet and social media, people can look you up. They can see who you are and what you've done. And people can see that my films have not been exploitive. And that helps in getting some people to at least talk. I think you have a much better chance of getting people to understand what it is you do when you can sit down face to face with them.

Speaking of the art of interviewing, you have managed to elicit some really stunning stories throughout your work. Talk about that process.

Well, a lot of times I just try to get people to go back to the time. I don't want you to talk to me about how you feel about it now. I want you to be there. What did you see? What did you smell? What did you hear? What you were been thinking back then?

I think also, I'm not trying to be smarter than anybody. I just want to hear your story. These people are fascinating to me: People who saw Marcus Garvey. People who worked with Madam Walker. People who invaded the state capital of California, who were involved with shootouts with the Panthers. And I'm trying to get them to talk to me the way they talk to their 14 year old nephew.

But I also think that a lot of these people have not been able to tell their stories before. When we were making Jonestown, we interviewed this woman whose kids all died that day. She was stuck in the airport in Jonestown, unable to get back. This is a 70 year old woman. And she's that woman in the supermarket line, you know, who's fumbling with her change. Nobody asks her those questions. Nobody gives her the chance to tell her story. So this is her chance to tell herstory.

There was one film where you were in front of the camera, telling your own story: A Place of Our Own. That's your only personal documentary. I remember when you presented it at Sundance, and you said it was very painful to make. But it felt like you had to be in the film. You dig into some very personal things - namely, your relationship with your father and your sister. What started out as a history film about black resorts turned out to be the story of you and your family and Martha's Vineyard. How did you get to that place where you said, "OK, I have to be in this film, even though I don't want to."?

That's a strange film. The first idea was to do a film about the black middle class. How do you talk about the black middle class? How do you talk about this group that never gets talked about? And so, it was about showing these resorts that black people go to.

So, I had to go to those resorts. And then we couldn't get the money. And I think that was all for the better; it became a film about one place: Martha's Vineyard, which is where my family went. Once we started making the film, it became clear that it was really a film about my family and about me, and it just got to be more and more personalized. To me it says something more about the length I'll go as a filmmaker to make a film work. And then it started to say so many more things on so many more levels. I happened to have a bunch of collaborators on that film who pushed me and made it go to where it went; I could never have taken it there by myself.

I wanted to talk about your collaborative process, primarily with Marcia Smith, your wife and partner, who has written a lot of your films, and Laurens Grant, who has done a lot of research and who directed Jesse Owens.

The main thing for me about collaborating with other people is that you trust them and you trust their opinions; you trust their aesthetic. You trust what they're bringing to it.

One of the reasons Marcia and I work so well together is she works as a writer on the films, so we're kind of doing different jobs. But also, I really trust her opinion on the films in general. I'm able to show her sequences and ask, "What of this isn't working for you?"

With Laurens, I have complete trust in her in doing so much of the research work - finding people, managing and finding the footage. She brings me in when I'm needed - "You really need to talk to this person…I think you should probably make this call…You should meet with this person."

She's also able to convince people to want to talk to us. And she's a bulldog at being able to find people. For the Panthers film, I would say, "We need to talk to some cops who can tell us the story from the other side. We have to find some cops." And I can rest assured that that's going to happen.

I wanted to talk about Firelight Media. A fundamental part of Firelight is mentoring up- and-coming filmmakers. Through the Documentary Labs and other programs that Firelight does in helping to nurture the careers of filmmakers, what are some the guiding principles that you pass on to your mentees?

Let me answer that question in a different way because I'm not sure if I can answer it that way. When I was coming up, there were a number of mentorship programs; most or all of those programs no longer exist. So, what we're trying to do with the Doc Lab is help filmmakers in any way we can to get their films made and out the door and on the air - and [enable them to] pay their bills through filmmaking. We create a new cohort of documentary filmmakers. That's the beauty of the way the Doc Lab works, and that's different for every filmmaker. Filmmakers come in and need help in writing their film, or they need a senior editor to take over and compare cuts. Some people need help with a trailer; some people need help with writing their budgets.

We're trying to be there for them. One of the most surprising things, because it's been of such value to people in the Lab, is the formation of a community that the Lab creates. They'll share information. You can cry on each other's shoulders and to talk about, you know, Do you have a cameraperson? Or, do you have a cameraperson in Detroit? Or do you have somebody who can re cut my trailer?

So, they don't feel like they're alone and literally and figuratively working in the dark. Most of the filmmakers are working on their first film. And to have a community is really essential.

Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine.