Stanley Nelson, MacArthur “genius” Fellow and member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has completed his newest documentary which will premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival this week. The film, “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities” isn’t his first Sundance film. Just 2 years ago, the remarkable and award winning film “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” educated and entertained audiences. This newest film, still quite literally in the color-correcting stage of production, will premiere on Monday, Jan. 23rd. Nelson, not worried a bit about finishing in time, shared with me his hopes for the film and the inspiration behind it.
Nelson, the father of 3, a 27 year old and a set of twins setting off for college soon, grew up in New York City, specifically, Manhattan. He recalls, “My father was a dentist and my mother was a librarian so there was not choice about whether or not to go to college.” He added, “I got out of high school during the Vietnam era and that was another reason I went to college.” Initially, although he liked movies as much as the next person, he wasn’t focused upon filmmaking but then he noticed the influx of Blaxploitation films. He observed that there“…were black people in front of the camera and few behind the camera, [and] I felt like I can do that! Those films are really bad. I can make a bad film too,” he chuckled aloud. Nelson then transferred to Fordham’s film department.
Why did Nelson focus upon this particular topic for his new film? His mother who attended Talladega College and his father who attended Howard University, while their choices were limited back the 1930’s to black schools only, it did, as he says, “…make a huge difference in their lives and down through the generations in my family’s lives.” He continues, “I felt it was a story that
hadn’t been told. Black colleges and universities were instrumental in forming black communities and being foundations for black middle class and nobody had ever really done a film about [it].
With a team of 3 researchers and a number of interns, Nelson found archival footage, old photos, and yearbooks to depict the history of several institutions. Creatively, Nelson uses reenactments and graphic art to help fill in the blanks where photos and footage couldn’t be found. He said, “So much of the film, maybe half of the film, takes place before 1930, before there was a lot of footage and we wanted to make the film come alive. As we get later into the film, we don’t have to do recreations, but early on we do. The film really starts out during slavery when African Americans were not allowed to learn to read and write and it was against the law for a white person to teach a slave how to read and write. It shows you how scary the idea of education was.”
Nelson hopes that by telling this important part of history using film as the medium, that first and foremost people are entertained by it. He says, “The next thing you want is for them to learn something. I think that part of the idea of the film is that you see the great lengths that African Americans have gone through to secure eduction and…to control their own education. I think it’s important to understand that education has the same importance that it did 170 years ago that it does today. Why was the white slave holder so afraid of education? It was a way to freedom.”
Why would someone choose an all black school for higher education? Nelson explained that, “It’s one of the only times you’re in the majority, especially if you’re living a middle-class life. A lot of times you’re going to all white schools. In your work life if you’re moderately successful, you’re in a white majority setting so this is a chance to be in a black majority setting and I think that builds great value.”
Given our current political environment, I asked Nelson about whether or not we were taking a few steps backward and how he thought we could avoid repeating the ugliness of our history. His answer was sound and confident as he shared, “I think that societies will always tend to, in the long run, move forward. It’s a roller coaster ride. I think that’s what we’ve seen recently. If we don’t constantly regroup and push forward, we go backward.”
As his youngest children head to majority white universities in the fall, not following in their grandparents’ footsteps of all black universities, Nelson hopes that they can both attend an all black university for a semester….it’ll be really interesting for them and they’ll enjoy it. I’ll keep my fingers crossed. I want them to make their own choices and be happy in college.
Nelson has an amazing upcoming week with not only his Sundance film premiere, but his special on BET called “Through the Fire: The Legacy of Barack Obama” airing on Thursday, January 19 at 7pm EST. The show explores President Obama’s two terms in office blending archival footage with interviews with some rather extraordinary guests: Samuel L. Jackson, Common, Usher, and narrated by Jesse Williams.
Nelson’s passion not only for filmmaking, but for portraying life shines through with every film he makes. Sundance will be yet another shining example of his work and he says, “I’m really excited to see the film with an audience and see the reaction!”