Stanley Nelson Jr. is one of TV's leading documentary filmmakers but that's hardly how this 69-year-old Harlem native would describe himself. "Storyteller" seems more his style, and the story he's told so often over a distinguished career is as big and as rich as America itself — also, as fraught and painful. His two dozen films, almost all for public TV, have secured him a Peabody Lifetime Achievement award, and MacArthur "genius" fellowship. His specialty is the African American experience while his passion is the sweep of history and how those movements that shape it are forged, from Civil Rights (2003's "The Murder of Emmett Till") to Black colleges and universities (2017's "Tell Them We Are Rising.")
PBS recently began streaming two of his most acclaimed films (2010s "Freedom Riders," 2014's "Freedom Summer") but Nelson's next projects will land elsewhere: A film on the '80s crack epidemic for Netflix this fall; and a 50th anniversary retrospective on the Attica prison riot for Showtime.
Meanwhile, he's completing a four-hour film on the business of slavery from the 1500s through emancipation. He spoke recently with Newsday's Verne Gay.
Who inspired you to become a filmmaker?
In the early '70s I took a film class at City College, liked it then switched my major to film which at that time was part of the Leonard Davis Center for the Performing Arts. I was in the second graduating class. There were six in my class and we had four full-time professors, Including [direct cinema pioneer] DA Pennebaker. [Later] when I was trying to get a job, I stumbled into William Greaves' office and got hired as an intern. Greaves [the prolific documentary trailblazer who died in 2014] was at that point probably the only African American filmmaker in the country with his own company.
You later worked with United Methodist Communications?
It was a branch of the Methodist Church and for a number of years produced films for them. It was about the same time that I started working on 'Two Dollars and a Dream' [Nelson's first major film, in 1987, about the hair products entrepreneur and America's first female millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker].
Your grandfather had a tie with her as well?
Grandfather on my mother's side — he was her lawyer, business partner and general manager of her company.
Tell me a bit about your own company, Firelight Media.
About 21 years ago, my wife [Marcia Smith] and I started it as a nonprofit, then in 2008 created Documentary Lab where we work with filmmakers of color, then later created the William Greaves Fund, for people making their second or third career film; the Lab is really for filmmakers making their first film.
What will your new films for Netflix and Showtime cover?
With 'Crack,' we go from the invention, up to the government's involvement, the impact on Black and Latino neighborhoods and how it led into this expanded war on drugs which led to the militarization of the police that we're seeing now. Attica is based on interviews and footage of the uprising [which] is amazing because the inmates, when they took over the prison, felt that one of the things that would protect them would be to invite the press, and [their] cameras.
What's the core premise of your film on slavery?
That this was a huge business and that it involved the whole world and that it was one of the foundations of the world [economy] and of the world we live in now. [Plus] there are also great stories that are known to scholars but not to the general public — for example, as the slave trade went on, the majority of the enslaved on the boats were kids because they had taken all the men; or that most of the slave rebellions on ships were led by women because women had been used sexually on the boats and they were able to move about on the boats and were able to see where the guns and keys were stored.
A lot of your films do seem to be optimistic, or about people who have overcome great odds. Is that your historical worldview too?
I do think that in almost any story there's a way forward where there's something positive about that story, and that's what I'm looking for — the murder of Emmett Till is a horrible story but it did lead to change. I'm also interested in stories about movements — in the people who are marching behind Martin Luther King Jr. instead of just King himself.
How do you fit into the long tradition of Black filmmakers?
One of things for the filmmakers of earlier generations and then I guess my generation was that we were still among the first to be able to tell our story, and that was really important — to tell the story of the African American experience in this country from the inside, and that's what I've always tried to do.
What would you say to a young person of color on Long Island who might be reading this and wondering how he or she might be able to become a filmmaker?
One of the great things that's happening right now is that you can see documentaries anywhere, and you can easily look up [Oscar] films that were shortlisted or ones at the BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia last year. You can watch them and see what people are doing and then just try to be as creative as you possibly can. I'm trying to tell a story and be as journalistically accurate as possible but I'm also trying to tell a story [and] tell it in a different way. Use your creativity to tell these stories. One of the things young people sometimes do is make this more complicated than it is. We've all seen hundreds of films and you should make a film that you like and one that you'd like to see.