Interview with Stanley Nelson
The 2012 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival recently honored filmmaker Stanley Nelson with its annual Full Frame Tribute for his significant contribution to the documentary form. Nelson’s work includes the critically acclaimed films Freedom Riders, A Place of Our Own, Wounded Knee, and The Murder of Emmett Till, among many others, all constructed “from the ground up,” wrote Full Frame programming director Sadie Tillery in the festival program. “The films are traditional—assembled from archival footage, interviews, even an occasional narrator—in the best sense of the word. . . . They are rare films that look both the stories and the viewers directly in the eye.” Nelson is keen to share the skills and knowledge gained over a decades-long career to help foster a new generation of filmmakers—he is cofounder and executive director of Firelight Media, a nonprofit that provides technical and professional support to emerging documentarians.
In the following interview, which first appeared in the 2012 Full Frame program, Nelson talks with Joel Mora, publishing intern at the Center for Documentary Studies, about his career as an independent filmmaker and the importance of helping young producers of color get their films made.
JM: Did you always know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
SN: When I was growing up in New York City, I had no idea that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I grew up in a time where filmmaking wasn’t really a career choice for African Americans at all. When I was in college—at City College in New York—this was in the early ’70s all of a sudden these Blaxploitation films came out, and there were black people behind the camera. The people in those films were very different from the people that I knew. A lot of films were about pimps and prostitutes and hustlers, and I didn’t know anybody like that. Also, I thought the films were by and large pretty bad and I could do just as good a job as they were doing.
JM: But you didn’t always want to do documentary work. . . .
SN: I had no interest in doing documentaries when I went to college, and part of that was because the documentaries that I saw were very much these kind of boring documentaries with a boring narrator with a British accent talking about something you didn’t want to hear about. I didn’t know that there was a whole other world of documentaries. When I got out of film school, I got a job with a guy named William Greaves, and he was making documentaries. I started out as an apprentice editor and then became a co-editor and then edited some films for him. What I learned from working with Bill—I actually lived with Bill for a year in upstate New York with his family—was that he was a black man who had his own independent film company and was able to support his family; he became a model of what was possible.
JM: You do a lot of directing and producing, but with the creation of the Firelight Media Producer’s Lab you’re also working in the development of future documentaries. Did you create Firelight because you thought something was missing in the industry?
SN: When I came up in filmmaking in the ’70s and ’80s, there were different programs for minority filmmakers that helped them get a start in the industry. All that has disappeared—films about people of color are usually made by white people. There was a time where there was an outcry of objection to that, with people saying, wait a minute, we need to tell our own stories, but even that’s disappeared because there’s no kind of movement or movement culture in the United States. One of the things that I’ve done, and a number of filmmakers of color have done for years, is work with younger producers who are trying to get their first or second films made. What we’ve tried to do with the Firelight Media Producer’s Lab is to see if there is a way to institutionalize it. So far we’ve been incredibly successful.
Most people come to us without finishing funds—they need money—so we help them write a proposal. We might consult with an editor like Sam Pollard, who does a fair amount of work with us, to consult with them to get their reel in order. What we’re trying to do with the Producer’s Lab is help filmmakers who have been acting as mentors get paid a little bit of money to do this work. It’s been incredibly rewarding for me. There’s no feeling like when you get that first major grant for a film that you’ve been trying to work on for five years. We have fifteen projects now, and eleven of them have gotten fully funded. Most of that money has come because of their connection with the Producer’s Lab and all of the work we’ve done with them.
We take applications—anybody can apply any time. We go to festivals. We take recommendations. If you know anybody, let me know. We go to foundations and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and other places to try to raise money. All of our filmmakers are of color, and they are all working on vastly different projects. They range from historical to cinéma vérité to personal films to comedies.
JM: Tell me about your first independent film.
SN: The first independent film that I made was Two Dollars and a Dream: The Story of Madame C. J. Walker and A’lelia Walker. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was Madam C. J. Walker’s attorney and business partner starting in 1906. I had always heard so much about Madam Walker in the family and I thought, you know, this would make a great film. I started trying to pull that together. It took me seven years to raise the money and get the film made but I stuck with it.
JM: So how did making The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords come about?
SN: That’s funny because that film in some ways also came about through my mother, who was a librarian. She would always tell me that I should do a film about the black newspapers, and in making the film about Madam Walker, I found that I was looking at old black newspapers on microfilm. So I’m looking at a black newspaper in Chicago, let’s say in 1925, and this is a newspaper put out by an all African American staff—there are African American editors and writers and photographers, African American cartoonists and sports writers. And I thought, wait a minute, this is a very different picture of the African American community than I ever heard anything about. Who were these people? I also found the papers engaging in themselves because they weren’t trying to be objective; this was news with a point and a point of view.
JM: When you look at Black Press, how do you think your style has changed? For instance, Black Press covers a long period—from the late 1820s to 1975—and the films you’ve made since then seem to cover specific moments and movements. Is that something that happened consciously?
SN: Maybe I just learned a lesson. Obviously it’s easier if your film is a story that’s already there. I really love Black Press because it’s a film that we had to make up. The Murder of Emmett Till or Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple are in some ways easier to do, and I say that knowing that any film is really hard to make. Emmett Till—he goes down to Mississippi, he whistles at this woman, he gets murdered, they catch the guys, they have the trial, the guys are acquitted. There are certain benchmarks in that story that you have to hit. With a film like Black Press that encompasses so much time, there’s no real story; you’re taking this idea, this institution, and making it into one.
JM: In your films there is a rich use of archival footage. What is your approach to working with that footage? How hard is it, and how selective are you?
SN: I kind of look at archival footage as being another character in the film. I’ve learned over the years to start out looking for the footage from the very first day. If we take a film like Freedom Riders, obviously you’re looking for anything you can find on the Freedom Riders but you’re also going to need footage on the different characters, the Kennedys, Governor Patterson of Alabama. But what is the film about?—it’s about these people on a bus. You’re going to need footage of buses from the late 1950s to early 1960s. You’re going to need any kind of footage that shows the way of life in Alabama and Mississippi. It’s about following every single lead and people I work with think I’m crazy, but I say you just have to look for it with an open mind and a smile on your face. You never know what’s going to turn up. How do you cover the civil rights movement without showing the dogs barking at those people and those hoses being turned on people, the images that we’ve seen over and over again? How do you find new images?
There are no ends that we won’t go to for new footage. To give you an example, when we did Freedom Riders we found a guy who had started to make a film about the civil rights movement in the mid ’70s. He had shot all kinds of film and collected a bunch of archival material but he had never finished the film. We asked him if we could look at his footage, and he said, “Yeah, if you’ll pay the freight, I’ll get it shipped to your office from storage in New Jersey.” A week later this truck pulls up and delivers thirty-five boxes of footage and each box is maybe three feet high. There were a couple of interviews with people who were crucial to the story who had passed away.
Another thing that happened is that we found out that the FBI had held a hearing after the bus was bombed, and they had talked to this one guy who lived a mile down the road, and he said, “My son ran out with his 8mm camera and filmed the bus burning but the FBI confiscated the film.” We asked the FBI for the film, and they said they didn’t know what we were talking about. We xeroxed the page of testimony and underlined where he talked about the film. The FBI said, “We’ll get back to you,” and eight months later they called and said, “We found the film. Do you want it?”
Sometimes I’m wrong, like when we did the film Marcus Garvey: Looking for Me in the Whirlwind. There’s one shot that’s about five seconds long of Marcus Garvey. That’s all the film footage there is. There are a lot of stills, but the only film is from a parade where Garvey is in a car and he kind of turns his head toward the camera and that’s it. We discovered the same shot in maybe ten different archives but we never found any other footage.
JM: A lot of your films have been part of PBS and the American Experience history series. How did that start?
SN: I’ve had a wonderful relationship with American Experience. We’ve done five or six films together. I think the first one we made was Marcus Garvey, and it just went on from there. It wasn’t that we had a five-picture deal, and I thought, I’m set for life. Every film is a separate piece, and I hope to do more work with them in the future.
JM: In most of your interviews, you seem interested in having the interviewee tell a story as he or she experienced it, rather than from a revisionist perspective. For instance, as Governor John Patterson is going through the events surrounding the Freedom Rides, he doesn’t talk much about how he feels about his segregationist actions.
SN: I think it breaks the surface of the bubble if somebody starts talking about how they feel now. There is a part of his interview online where he talks about being sorry—that he made a mistake and he should’ve followed his heart more but he just wanted to get reelected. Even though it was a powerful statement and I really liked it, I didn’t feel it fit within the framework of the film. The film isn’t about what you thought five years later, ten years later, twenty years later. I am genuinely interested in what made Governor Patterson do what he did—what was he thinking when he said that, how could he not answer the president’s call?
JM: Another interesting thing about watching one of your films, is that a person knows it’s a Stanley Nelson film by its direction and style but you take yourself out of it...
SN: I have been lucky enough to tell these powerful stories. If I’m given the opportunity to tell the story of the Freedom Riders it may be the only time that happens for maybe the next forty years, who knows. Who cares what I think about it? I’m not trying to push you to think any one thing I hope: This is what happened.
We bent over backward when we made Freedom Riders to give some white southerners’ points of view because that’s really fascinating. Why would someone throw a bomb on a bus because a black person and a white person are sitting together? What would make somebody do that? Why would you do that? To me, that’s much more interesting than getting mad.
JM: You seem to work with a core team on all your films, specifically Lewis Erskine and Tom Phillips. How does that consistency help you?
SN: I think I’ve been very fortunate to work with Lewis and Tom. It’s been lucky. I’m always looking to work with them because I really enjoy the experience and I also enjoy what they bring to a film. With Lewis as an editor whom I work with day-to-day, it’s great because we both grew up in New York City, we’re about the same age, we have the same cultural references, and I can use shortcuts when we’re talking.
JM: Out of all of your films, A Place of Our Own is very different because it’s so personal. I can tell that you started out wanting it to be about African American resorts, but it seems like you just couldn’t ignore the way you grew up and your relationship with your father, your family.
SN: We were going to make a film about black resorts, the whole phenomena of why black people still self-segregate when they have a chance. These are middle-class and upper-middle class black people who could go anywhere they want, and most of the resorts started out during segregation. These are the kind of people that I knew, the kind of people that were my family, and the kind of people that we still don’t see on TV or in movies.
We got some money to make the film and we decided to center it on Martha’s Vineyard because we could go up there and stay for free, and it was a place that I knew, and it started being something more and more personal. This is what made the film work. It became a much richer film because it was about my own experiences. As we went, I learned a lot. If you’re going to make a personal film it has to be really personal; I learned my lesson.
JM: Would you ever do a personal film like that again?
SN: It was really, really difficult for me to make for a lot of reasons. One, because it was so personal, and it was my family, and two, as a filmmaker it’s hard to judge. Does it work when I’m in front of the camera crying on the anniversary of my mother’s death? I couldn’t judge that. For years and years I said that I would never do it again, but time passes and who knows. People relate to personal films in a very different way. Last summer I was on the beach in Martha’s Vineyard; I was just standing there looking at the water and this kid about eleven said, “Hey you’re the guy who made that film right,” and I said, “Yeah,” and he said,“After watching your film it made me want to treat my sister better.” I thought that was so wild, you know. I’m never going to get that kind of reaction about Jonestown or Freedom Riders, so who knows what’s going to happen.
JM: In the film you mention that you attended a mostly white grade school, and that a new student entered your class who was from West Africa. The children were teasing her about her hair, what she looked like, and you joined in. She starts crying and looks at you. How has that moment affected your life, and your documentary work?
SN: I think for me that moment always kind of symbolizes that you can’t lose track of who you are. It made me realize that I’ve got to be who I am in whatever situation that is. Sometimes, unfortunately, black people’s role in this society is to defend certain things. We have this kind of privileged position and we have to have empathy for everybody. That’s what it taught me. I can’t go along with what’s happening just because it’s happening; I’ve got to analyze it—what it means for me. One of the things that I try to believe in my life, and in my films, is that African Americans have been given a gift and we have to share that gift. A lot of times we talk about what we don’t have, but we also have certain gifts—a gift of empathy, a gift of understanding, the ability to understand other people and other ways of life, and it’s important that we let that be part of who we are.
JM: What are you working on now?
SN: We’re especially excited to have a new film, Jesse Owens, part of American Experience that I wrote and produced with Laurens Grant, screen on the opening night of the festival. It’s the first major film that Laurens has directed, though she has a film in the lab and was a co-producer on Freedom Riders. We’re also working on a film now that we just started on the Black Panther Party, and we’ve raised a little more than half the money on a film we want to make on the March on Washington. We also have a film in the works with American Experience on Freedom Summer.
JM: So what would you like your legacy to be? What would you want people to say about your films and your work?
SN: He tried his best. I don’t know. I would be glad if they’re still seen. One thing you hope is that the films are honest and that you got it right. That’s what I hope. If the films are used down the line, that would be enough.