Having chronicled countless landmark moments in African-American history, acclaimed documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson (“The Black Panthers,” “The Murder of Emmett Till”) understands the stakes at a time when both the culture at large, as well as the documentary industry, are in the midst of a wholesale reckoning. “It’s clear that the voices of [BIPOC filmmakers] are what’s needed—like a shot in the arm to the industry,” he said.
Nelson appeared at Hot Docs on Tuesday in conversation with director Jacqueline Olive (“Always in Season”), who was named as one of Variety’s 10 Documentary Filmmakers to Watch in 2019. Nelson’s documentary on the ‘80s crack epidemic, “Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy” (pictured), screens this week in Special Presentations at the festival, where he’s receiving an Outstanding Achievement Award.
During the wide-ranging conversation, which is available on-demand to Hot Docs attendees, the Emmy and Peabody Award winner reflected on the arc of his career, beginning with his first job out of college with the legendary filmmaker William Greaves to his mentorship work with young BIPOC filmmakers and a slate of upcoming projects.
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He began by recalling the nearly two decades he spent “struggling to make films and having a hard time getting people to answer my calls.” For his first feature, “Two Dollars and a Dream” (1987), he not only directed but served as producer, editor, and sound engineer. It was a family affair, with his sister, Jill, providing narration, and his mother making an appearance in the film. In the years that followed, success was slow to come by: his first production company, Half Nelson Productions, he described as “me in a spare bedroom.”
Yet Nelson persisted. In 1998 he launched Firelight Media, which would eventually lead to such critically acclaimed films as PBS’ dual Emmy-winning “Freedom Riders” and “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool,” which premiered at Sundance and is now part of PBS’ “American Masters” series. Today Firelight is one of the most influential outfits producing films by and about communities of color.
Among the projects on its current slate are two documentary features for Maryland public television on the Black abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman; a series of short films by emerging filmmakers for MTV Networks about African-American history; and a feature-length documentary for Showtime that chronicles the five-day Attica prison rebellion in 1971, to be released this fall in time for the uprising’s 50th anniversary.
In 2008, Firelight launched its Documentary Lab, a mentorship program that seeks out and develops emerging, diverse nonfiction filmmakers. Since then, the lab has mentored more than 100 documakers, roughly 80% of whom have produced their first features. “We try to guide and help filmmakers from the time they enter the lab until the time they finish their film,” said Nelson. “We’re not making the film for them. They have a vision, they have the skill set, and they are making their film.”
Many of the lab’s alumni have stayed connected, recommending writers, editors and producers to other participants, or collaborating on projects, in order to build and strengthen a community of BIPOC documentary filmmakers. “We’re trying to help create filmmakers of color who are able to pay their rent and buy their groceries from making films,” Nelson said.
It’s a program that comes at a time of tremendous flux for the documentary industry, with demand for nonfiction content from streaming services leading to what many have dubbed a “Golden Age” for the documentary form. “For people like myself, who have a long track record in the industry, things have changed pretty much for the better. There’s a lot more money and opportunities out there,” said Nelson. “But it can get more complicated to navigate that for independent filmmakers.”
That was part of the impetus behind the William Greaves Fund, a Documentary Lab initiative to support emerging BIPOC filmmakers working on their second, third, or fourth feature films—a time when many promising careers stall, often due in part to industry biases against filmmakers of color.
“So many BIPOC filmmakers make a film, and a lot of times, they’re thought of very differently than white filmmakers,” said Nelson. “You make a great film, you won an Emmy, but you were lucky. [They’re told:] ‘You found a great story, but you were lucky and found a great story.’ Not that you told a great story and made a great film.”
He continued: “People that have gone through the Documentary Lab, or other filmmakers of color, have done films that won Emmys or Peabodys and can’t get their foot in the door of the streamers.”
The fund is an homage to Nelson’s mentor, the Harlem-born documentary filmmaker and pioneer of African-American filmmaking. It was Greaves who told the young director, after the release of his second documentary, “The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords”: “They can’t say it was an accident. Now you’ve done it twice, and things will change.” Nelson added: “And he was kinda right.”