Class of 1976
Stanley Nelson has been a widely acclaimed documentary writer, director and producer for more than 30 years. The focus of his work, which has primarily been for television, has been an examination of the history and experience of black people in America. He is co-founder and executive director of Firelight Media, which offers technical education and professional support to emerging documentarians, and co-founder of Firelight Films, a documentary production company.
At the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, where his film “Freedom Riders” was featured, he noted that his motivation as a filmmaker was his belief “that there were stories not being told, and images that we were not seeing on the screen.” “Freedom Riders,” Nelson’s first movie to deal directly with the civil rights movement, was shown on PBS in January 2011 as part of the “American Experience” series. It marked the 50th anniversary of the civil rights battles depicted on screen.
“I feel like I’m trying to tell African-American audiences something they haven’t heard,” he told The New York Times, “because I feel like if I tell African-American audiences something new about their history, then it’s definitely going to be new for white folks too.”
Stanley Earl Nelson Jr. was born in New York on June 7, 1951, and raised in an upper-middle-class family. He attended New Lincoln School, a private school in Manhattan, from kindergarten through high school before enrolling in the Leonard Davis Film School at City College and earning a B.F.A. He apprenticed with filmmaker William Greaves, his mentor, then worked for five years in the communications branch of the United Methodist Church, learning to make “message” films that were also entertaining. His first, completed in 1989, was “Two Dollars and a Dream,” about a pioneering black businesswoman named Madame C.J. Walker. It was shown on PBS, won a CINE Golden Eagle and was named Best Production of the Decade by the Black Filmmaker Foundation. The subjects of his movies include black newspapers, educators and vacation resorts; black nationalist Marcus Garvey; Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black youngster who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman; and the mass suicides at Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978.
He has produced many films for PBS. “The Murder of Emmett Till” garnered Emmy and Peabody Awards in 2003 and helped motivate the Justice Department to reopen the case in 2004. “The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords,” a history of African-American newspapers, received the San Francisco International Film Festival’s Golden Spire Award, the Freedom of Expression Award at Sundance and was named best historical documentary at the Black Hollywood Film Festival. “A Place of Our Own” looks back at the 40 years he and his family spent summering at Oak Bluffs, a largely black resort community on Martha’s Vineyard.
Other PBS productions include: the Emmy winning “Election ’93”; “Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple”; “Puerto Rico: Our Right to Decide” (CINE Golden Eagle Award); “Wounded Knee”; “Shattering the Silences,” focusing on minority faculty in higher education; “Methadone: Curse or Cure”; “Freedom Bags,” about African-American domestic workers; the South African segments of “Mandela” and productions for “Listening to America” and “What Can We Do About Violence?” with Bill Moyers. Nelson’s productions for the Smithsonian Institution include “Free Within Ourselves,” a portrait of African-American artists (CINE Golden Eagle).
Nelson’s work brought him a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 2002. He was a fellow of the American Film Institute; the New York Foundation of the Arts; the Washington, D.C., Commission for the Arts; a Revson Fellow at Columbia University; a University Regents Lecturer at the University of California-San Diego; and served on the Fulbright Fellowship’s selection panel in film. He has taught film at Howard University and the Graduate School of Journalism’s Documentary Program at the University of California Berkeley. Nelson is also a frequent speaker on new media and is a regular lecturer at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s National Producers Academy.