Documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson, Jr. may not be a household name in your household, but you know his work. Former NFL star, Michael Vick, jazz icon Miles Davis, historically Black colleges and universities and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense have all been viewed through Nelson’s lens. Though “Civil War” documentarian Ken Burns may be better known by the mainstream, Nelson owns the lane of Black filmmakers who are telling Black stories on their own terms.
He who tells the story owns the story and when Black history is distorted, its often because it has been told by those who view it through a biased perspective. How many times have white filmmakers charged with telling Black stories focused on Black dysfunction or pathology instead of the rich culture that you can only truly appreciate from the inside? Would not a Jewish filmmaker like Stephen Spielberg, tell a different story of the Holocaust than someone whose history doesn’t include it?
Nelson’s own story reads like a Black history fact. Nelson, 68, is not the only prominent member of his family. HIs father was a pioneering dentist and his mother, A’lelia, was a librarian and the last president of the original Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. Nelson’s sister, journalist Jill Nelson, wrote “Volunteer Slavery: My Ultimate Negro Experience” which won an American Book Award.
Nelson started his career with the legendary William Greaves, a pioneering Black documentary filmmaker who made over 100 documentaries and was nominated for four Emmy Awards.
“I got into documentary filmmaking in the 70s and I came in the wave of Black filmmakers,” Nelson said in a recent interview with Blackamericaweb.com. “Then all of a sudden there were Black people in front of the cameras but a limited number behind the camera.I was in college at the time, took a film class and liked it and switched my major. William Greaves Productions was the only black man who had his own production company. I fell into it – it wasn’t an economic choice, it was just happenstance.”
From working with the late Greaves, who did a documentary on the controversial National Black Political Convention in 1972 that was released in a severely edited version, then lost, then recovered and restored, Nelson, now 68, learned the basics of documentary filmmaking. He says the choice to do documentaries instead of fictional feature films was relatively easy.
“One of the things about documentary films that you’re working with real people real stories and real life,” Nelson says. “You’re able to work and perfect your craft in ways you’re not able to do in fiction filmmaking. You can go and grab a camera and make a documentary about the bodega on the corner or your mother. It allows you the possibility of growth that fiction films don’t. Documentary is kind of a puzzle because you have all these pieces, but how do you put them together?”
A three-time Emmy winner, Nelson’s career began with a 1998 documentary “Two Dollars And A Dream about Black hair entrepreneur Madame C.J. Walker. Since then, Nelson has covered the Freedom Riders, Marcus Garvey and the life and death of Emmett Till. His most recent docs – “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” (2015) “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities” (2017) “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” (2019) and his first ESPN “30 for 30” doc on Vick, released last month, show the range of his work.
Nelson’s documentaries allow their subjects room to speak for themselves as both Vick and Davis do in their respective docs. Vick puts his own downfall in perspective with the career renaissance he’s experienced since and Davis speaks through interviews and footage, much of which has not been previously or widely seen before.
In both docs, Nelson had to juggle the past indiscretions of both men in order to find a balance between the professions that made them famous and the missteps in their personal lives. Michael Vick did jail time for his dog-fighting ring and had other off-field issues that shortened his NFL career.
Sign Up For Our Newsletter!
Davis was abusive to most of the women in his wife, including his two wives, dancer Frances Taylor and actress Cicely Tyson. In “Vick” Nelson makes the subtle but valid point that dogfighting is as entrenched in white rural areas as it is in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Davis’ first wife, Taylor, presents a measured picture of the abuse that ended their relationship but also of the talented, charismatic man she fell in love with.
That kind of balance has been debated since Kobe Bryant’s unexpected death, when many fans and friends objected to his 2003 rape case being referenced by Gayle King and others. Does that concern Nelson when he determines how to tell these stories?
“I have to tell the truth,” Nelson says. “My concern is not for the subject or how the subject is going to feel. But with Kobe, it’s part of his legacy, but how much of his legacy is it and how do you talk about it? Kobe is, in a way, like Mike (Vick). We’re talking about him because he’s a basketball player, but the other issues are part of his legacy and its complicated. If I’m doing a film about Kobe, you gotta talk about it. But the emphasis you put on it, that’s the key.”
It’s the kind of vision that makes a difference when a Black filmmaker is at the helm. While Burns and many other prominent filmmakers have achieved award-winning success telling Black stories, you wonder how different those films might have been with a Black filmmaker in charge. Nelson says he has no interest in making films about subjects outside of the Black community. He cites the arrogance many white filmmakers have about their expertise on Black subjects and how much easier it is for them to get financed to tell Black stories as though they are their own.
“I believe that people need to tell their own stories and that those stories are colored by who you are,” Nelson says. ” I tell stories that are colored by growing up in the African-American community. I think it’s important that people make films about their own culture and African-American filmmakers don’t [always] get the chance. White filmmakers are swimming in the water but are skimming the surface. We make better films about ourselves than other people can.”
“Miles Davis: Birth of The Cool” airs on PBS stations on February 24th at 9 p.m. Check local listings.
PHOTO: Stanley Nelson Courtesy