“I don’t think I’ve ever had a consistent style from film to film. But one of the things I’ve always believed is that filmmakers need to tell their own stories — and also, that the people who are involved in those stories should tell their own stories.”
Responding to a question about his filmmaking style from NPR’s Eric Deggans during their keynote conversation yesterday at Realscreen‘s virtual summit, RSS Lite, renowned documentarian Stanley Nelson — this year’s recipient of the Realscreen Legacy Award — instead turned his lens toward the stories he has sought to tell rather than himself. One of the primary filmic chroniclers of the African American experience, Nelson has amassed more than two dozen directorial credits and numerous honors over the course of his 30-plus year career, including most recently an Oscar nomination for best documentary feature for his latest film, Attica, which he co-directed with Traci A. Curry.
Beyond his own achievements, Nelson has also helped launch dozens of other films (and careers) through the Documentary Lab, which he and his wife and partner Marcia Smith established in 2009 through their company Firelight Media. During his keynote, Nelson elaborated on the principles that gave birth to the Lab, most notably his conviction about the importance of cultures chronicling themselves from within.
“I always think of it as, if a story is an ocean, then someone who’s coming from outside the culture, they can swim on the top of the water, but they can’t dive deep — they can’t dive down to the bottom, because they haven’t grown up in that culture,” he said.
Nelson illustrated this idea with a vivid description of a sequence from his 2015 film Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. “One of the last things that happens in the film is the Panthers are in a shootout with the L.A. police, and they’re trapped in their headquarters — they’re all shot up, they’re running out of bullets so they can’t fire back, and the police are about to break down the doors.
“We were interviewing two of the guys who were there, and I asked one of them, ‘So you’re in that situation, how did you feel?’ And he looked me in my eye and said, ‘I felt great. I was a Black man making my own rules.’
“And he’s looking me in the eye, and what he’s saying to me is, ‘You know what I mean?’ And I knew what he meant, and he knew I knew it. He didn’t have to say, ‘After 200 years of oppression, and after going through slavery…’ — just, ‘I felt great.’ That’s part of what you can bring to a film if it’s about you and about your culture.”
As Nelson explained it, the Documentary Lab was begun to revive a dormant tradition that had first emerged during the same period of political and cultural ferment he had chronicled in Black Panthers. “When I was coming up years ago — we’re talking about the early ’70s —the Panthers were out, and the Young Lords, and it was a time of revolution and change. And people were like, wait a minute, there’s no Latinos, there’s no Black folks [in the film industry]. So there were some programs [started] to help people of color get into the business. And all of those have pretty much disappeared.”
In response to this felt need, Nelson and Smith launched the Firelight Documentary Lab, which every year welcomes 10 to 15 early-career non-fiction filmmakers for an 18-month mentoring and project development program. As Nelson noted, the Lab has not only helped grow the corps of documentary directors of color, but also increased representation throughout the other ranks of the industry.
“When [the Lab participants] make their first film, they’re [often also] hiring associate producers who are of color, editors of color, et cetera,” he observed. “And now [those people] have a credit, and then they can go on [to develop their own careers in the industry].
“So hopefully, slowly but surely, we’re changing the look and the makeup of the industry. It’s not an explosion,” he laughed, “but it’s one little tiny step at a time.”
While it didn’t necessarily have the force of an explosion, the publication last year of an open letter taking Nelson’s frequent partner PBS to task for what was seen by its authors as the limited extent of its diversity measures was definitely a gauntlet thrown down. Asked why he chose to add his name to the more than 140 signatories on the letter, Nelson explained:
“I think it was really important for me to sign it, because I’ve been around a long time and I agree with the letter. One of the things the letter was asking for was more transparency. If you ask PBS to write down where the money goes, then probably you’ll see that it’s not going out in equal measure.
“PBS was started with core values, [one of which is] to have films that reach all the population, and to have films that are made by all of the population. And that’s what we’re asking for. So I think that the letter was really written with love — it was like, ‘Hey, we’re your partners, we love you, you’ve launched so many of our careers. But let’s look at where the money is going.’”
One place where that money is now going is Firelight, as PBS announced last month that in addition to its pre-existing support for the Documentary Lab, it would commit $3.6 million over three years to help support mid-career filmmakers through Firelight’s William Greaves Fund. In addition to providing financial aid for non-fiction filmmakers, Nelson — who has branched out from PBS in recent years to work with other broadcast and streaming partners (Attica, for example, was made for Showtime) — also maintained that the venerable pubcaster remains a more than viable outlet in the era of streaming.
“The people who watch PBS are the same people who watch Netflix or whatever,” said Nelson. “One of the things that we tell filmmakers in the Lab is that people now are basically agnostic about the platforms they’re watching. [So] there are certain advantages to every platform, and one of the advantages of PBS is that, like, 98.5% of homes in the United States get PBS.”
While still urging first-time or emerging documentarians to exercise caution about the exhibition partners they choose to work with, and to ensure that those partners provide the publicity and marketing support their films need to get out into the world, Nelson overall seems to regard the streaming explosion as a net positive for filmmakers of color. “I think many streamers and platforms are wanting [more] diversity [in their content] — and not only diverse people, but also diverse regions and diverse ideas,” he said. “So I think the key is just to make the best film you possibly can, and to think about how you’re going to reach an audience while you’re making the film.”
“And also, just to love making documentaries,” he noted in an aside. “Because even if your film gets into Sundance or Tribeca or whatever, that’s a very small part of the filmmaking process. It’s really [about being] in the trenches, in the dark. [Laughs.] Alone!”