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‘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?” 

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