×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

‘Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool’ Filmmaker Stanley Nelson on What He Loves About Documentaries

Stanley Nelson’s documentary “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” is playing in U.S. theaters after screening at Sundance. But for the past 30 years Nelson’s films, such as the features “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” and “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities,” have detailed lesser-known stories of the African American experience. He produced the 2017 short “Gavin Grimm vs.,” directed by Nadia Hallgren, about a trans boy who challenged his school board’s bathroom policy by filing a case that made it to the Supreme Court. Nelson’s films expose injustices and pivotal moments in American history, and have received multiple awards. 

Nelson first appeared in Variety on Dec. 2, 1987, with a rave review of “Two Dollars and a Dream,” his documentary about Madame C.J. Walker, whose parents were former slaves and who’s credited as the first black female self-made millionaire.

Was the idea of studying black figures something you always wanted to do with your films? 

Not at all. “Two Dollars and a Dream” was my first documentary feature film. I went to film school, and I always thought I’d make fiction films. I got a job with a guy named William Greaves, who was a dean of documentary filmmakers. My grandfather F.D. Ransome was Madame C.J. Walker’s business partner, so it was just this aha! moment of “Wait a minute. I’ve got this story of my family that I can tell,” and at that point that I think most people didn’t know. That led me to do “Two Dollars and a Dream: The Story of Madame C.J. Walker,” which led me to do other historical films as time went on. It wasn’t my ambition when I went into filmmaking that I was going to be a documentary filmmaker who specializes in historical films.

What did documentaries offer that you couldn’t get from fiction films? 

I found I was able to work consistently. In documentaries, you spend a lot of time trying to get films together, but in fiction films you spend a lot of time trying to get films off the ground and rolling. So I didn’t have to do that. I also found that there were some things I really liked about documentary filmmaking that I never knew I loved: looking at old pictures and old footage, newspapers and newspaper articles. I really loved interviewing people about their lives and about things that happened years ago that were high points of their lives. I loved the whole process of making documentary films — and stuck with it.

Did you have any mentors who influenced your sense of filmmaking?

I really loved working with Bill [Greaves]. When I was in college, I was a film major, so I looked at a lot of films — a lot of Japanese films. It wasn’t that I was trying to make documentary films. I liked a lot of Italian films. I was trying to figure out my way in. I try to give each documentary film that I work on a cinematic quality whenever I can.

What lesson from “Two Dollars and a Dream” continued in your other work?

I learned the importance of pictures and footage and to let my pictures sometimes tell the story themselves or let the footage tell the story itself. I also learned, because I interviewed a lot of elderly people, that no matter how old you are, your personality is your personality. I learned that a lot of people look at older people like “they’re old,” but I started looking at older people like “Who are they really?” 

More Film

  • Bruce Springsteen arrives for the New

    Bruce Springsteen Returns to NJ Hometown for Surprise 'Western Stars' Introduction

    Bruce Springsteen returned to his hometown of Freehold, New Jersey to offer a surprise introduction to the first public multiplex viewing of his concert/documentary film, “Western Stars.” Dressed simply in a brown jacket, Springsteen took a moment to say a few words at the AMC Freehold 14 movie theater on Saturday night. “We knew we [...]

  • Backstage in Puglia del film SPACCAPIETRE:

    'Gomorrah' Star Salvatore Esposito Set For De Serio Twins' 'The Stonebreaker'

    Salvatore Esposito, the Italian star who plays young mob boss Genny Savastano in Italy’s hit TV series “Gomorrah,” will soon be hitting the big screen toplining upcoming drama “The Stonebreaker” by twin directorial duo Gianluca and Massimiliano De Serio, who are known internationally for “Seven Acts of Mercy.” The De Serio twins are now in post on “Stonebreaker” [...]

  • Angelina Jolie is Maleficent in Disney’s

    Box Office: 'Maleficent: Mistress of Evil' Tops 'Joker,' 'Zombieland'

    “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” is on track to give Disney another first place finish after scoring $12.5 million in Friday’s domestic ticket sales. If estimates hold, the Angelina Jolie-led film should finish the weekend with about $38 million — well below earlier forecasts but enough to top holdover “Joker” and fellow newcomer “Zombieland: Double Tap.” [...]

  • Maelle Arnaud

    Lumière Chief Programmer Maelle Arnaud: 'Film History Doesn't Have Parity'

    LYON, France   — As the Lumière Institute’s head programmer since 2001, Maelle Arnaud helped launched the Lumière Festival in 2009 and has watched it grow in international esteem over the decade that followed. This year, the festival ran 190 films across 424 screenings in theaters all over town. The festival will come to a [...]

  • Girl with Green Eyes

    Talking Pictures TV: Bringing the Past Back to Life in the U.K.

    LYON, France – Since its launch in 2015, Talking Pictures TV has become the fastest-growing independent channel in the U.K. with a growing library of British film and TV titles that span five decades, according to founder Noel Cronin. Noel Cronin attended the Lumière Festival’s International Classic Film Market (MIFC) in Lyon, France, where he [...]

  • Wings of Desire

    German Heritage Sector Applauds Increased Digitization, Preservation Funding

    LYON, France  — Germany’s film heritage sector is celebrating a new federal and state-funded initiative launching in January that will provide €10 million ($11.15 million) a year towards the digitization and preservation of feature films. Rainer Rother, the artistic director of the Deutsche Kinemathek, outlined the plan at a panel discussion at the Lumière Festival’s [...]

  • 'QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight'

    Film Review: 'QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight'

    In one of the intermittent revealing moments in “QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight,” a documentary about the films of Quentin Tarantino that’s like a familiar but tasty sundae for Quentin fans, we see Tarantino on the set of “Pulp Fiction,” shooting the iconic dance contest at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. As John Travolta and Uma [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content