PBS unveils DEI initiatives, new Stanley Nelson docs

PBS makes $3.6 million commitment to filmmakers of color, introduces new internal diversity initiatives PBS has partnered with Firelight Media, the BIPOC non-profit filmmaking org founded by Stanley Nelson (pictured) and ...
January 18, 2022

PBS makes $3.6 million commitment to filmmakers of color, introduces new internal diversity initiatives

PBS has partnered with Firelight Media, the BIPOC non-profit filmmaking org founded by Stanley Nelson (pictured) and Marcia Smith, and pledged an investment of $3.6 million over the next three years to help support projects by mid-career, non-fiction filmmakers of color.

The announcement, which was made today by PBS president & CEO Paula Kerger at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour, comes less than a year after PBS was taken to task in an open letter from Beyond Inclusion — a BIPOC-led collective of non-fiction filmmakers and industry figures — which asked “how PBS, which is funded by public dollars, is leveling the playing field of access to its many resources” — specifically, comparing the amount of commissions for filmmaker Ken Burns to those of filmmakers of color.

The letter, whose signatories included Firelight’s Nelson (who has previously worked with PBS), pointed out that Burns has been allotted over 200 hours of programming by the pubcaster over the course of their 40-year relationship, and asked that PBS supply wide-ranging data to demonstrate how it is living up to its commitment to diversity.

The newly announced funding will be distributed through Firelight’s already existing William Greaves Fund, which is named after the prolific African-American documentarian who was Nelson’s longtime mentor. Filmmakers can submit projects via an open call, and Firelight and PBS will jointly assess the submissions for potential funding.

“This funding from PBS will help us expand our programs serving underrepresented documentary filmmakers and support their integration in the public media system,” said Firelight co-founder Marcia Smith. “We are grateful for the support from PBS to expand and diversify this pipeline of documentary filmmakers for public media.”

“These initiatives are another example of PBS’ commitment to amplifying diverse stories and perspectives,” commented Sylvia Bugg, PBS chief programming executive and GM of general audience programming. “PBS is proud to partner with Firelight Media as we continue to advance the work of underrepresented makers and offer more diverse content across our platforms.”

Kerger also announced that PBS would launch its own internal initiatives to strengthen its long-term commitment to diversifying both its content and its production staff. These include a mentorship program for early-career filmmakers from diverse backgrounds, and an executive fellowship program that will place emerging BIPOC filmmakers and executives in roles on already existing productions.

New doc projects from Stanley Nelson, Henry Louis Gates Jr. unveiled

On the programming front, the pubcaster announced that Firelight co-founder Stanley Nelson and Nicole London will co-produce and co-direct a pair of original documentaries: Becoming Frederick Douglass, a portrait of the famed anti-slavery actvist; and Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom, about the legendary “Conductor of the Underground Railroad” who helped more than 300 escaped slaves find freedom in the north.

The docs will be produced by Maryland Public Television and Firelight’s production arm Firelight Films, and will premiere on PBS in the fall of 2022. Nelson and Lynne Robinson will executive produce, while Keith M. Brown and Michael English are the executives in charge of production.

“There are no two people more important to our country’s history than Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman,” said Nelson. “We are honored to share their stories with a country that continues to grapple with the impact of slavery and debate notions of citizenship, democracy and freedom.”

Another major fall offering is Making Black America: Through the Grapevine, a four-part series presented by Henry Louis Gates Jr., longtime host of PBS’ Finding Your Roots and director of several other docs for the pubcaster. The docuseries will take a wide-ranging look at Black experience and culture in American history, from the era of slavery to the modern day.

“It was profoundly meaningful to work on this series at a time in history when we’ve needed community more than ever,” said Gates. “From the Prince Hall Masons to Black Twitter, Making Black America tells the story of these remarkable Black social networks and how they wove an interconnected web of opportunities and uplift for generations that continue to comfort and inspire.”

In addition to hosting and writing the series, Gates will executive produce Making Black America with Dyllan McGee, with Stacey L. Holman serving as series producer and director. The series is a coproduction of McGee Media, Inkwell Media, and WETA Washington, D.C.

Other announcements of upcoming programming from PBS today included One Day in March, an examination of the recent rise in violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), which will air in May 2022. Directed by Titi Yu, the one-hour doc is produced by Repartee Films in association with the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) and The WNET Group. Gina Kim is executive producer, while WNET is represented by Lesley Norman as executive producer and Stephen Segaller as executive in charge.

Another notable title is the tentatively titled The Story of Hip-Hop with Chuck D., produced for PBS by BBC Studios, which is slated for fall 2022. First announced in December of last year, the four-part series is hosted by the Grammy-winning Public Enemy frontman, who interviews rap legends including Run DMC, LL Cool J, Queen Latifah, and many more to recount the more than four-decade history of the art form. Chuck D. and his manager Lorrie Boula are executive producers on the project, while Bill Gardner is the executive in charge for PBS. Max Gogarty is the commissioning editor for the BBC, with Sam Emmery as executive producer and Helen Bart as series producer for BBC Studios.

PBS also released its Black History Month line-up, which features premieres of several docs including The American Diplomat on ‘American Experience’; Marian Anderson: The Whole World in Her Hands on ‘American Masters’; Fannie Lou Hamer: An America ReFramed Special on ‘America ReFramed’; and American Reckoning, a new look at the Civil Rights era that will air on ‘Frontline.’

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.