Stanley Nelson, a premier filmmaker, has transformed the filmmaking industry by sharing true experiences. Combining interviews, photographic stills, and real footage, Nelson raises the awareness of the African American experience. As director, producer, and writer at Firelight Media/Half-Nelson Films, Nelson motivates, uplifts and moves audiences across the world.
Stanley Nelson was the second of four children born to Stanley E. Nelson and the former A'Lelia "Liel" Ransom. The elder Nelson was a Howard University trained dentist and the outspoken Ransom was a librarian. Their union produced four children: Lynn, Stanley, Jill, and Ralph.
The family grew up mostly in Harlem but later moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In an effort to instill the importance of perfection and excellence, the Nelson children attended mostly private schools and enjoyed summers vacationing at Martha's Vineyard. The Nelsons enjoyed their stay at their property that overlooked the ocean. This was one of the few places where they seemed to escape the issues of race.
Nelson saw Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song as a teenager, and it gave him a keen awareness of cinema and its power of persuasion. Sweetback was the big screen's first black ghetto hero and star of Melvin Van Peebles' groundbreaking 1971 film. The movie opened doors for films about strong black characters. While some blacks did not embrace the genre, it paved the way for many African American writers, directors, and crewmembers. Nelson immediately wanted to create productions that evoked a sense of reaction. He saw filmmaking as a voice to highlight injustices and to calm pain.
During difficult times, such as his parents' divorce or personal battles, a collection of film cans, videocassettes, and lighting equipment always lurked in the shadow as a sign of strength. All of his early life experiences set the foundation for his filmmaking projects.
Changing the World Through Film
After high school, Nelson attended five colleges: Beloit College, Atlanta University, New York University, Hunter College, and City College in New York City. He earned a B.F.A. in film from the Leonard Davis Film School at City College in 1976.
His first real contact with a seasoned film industry professional was with William Greaves. It was during this apprenticeship that he learned the intricacies of documentary filmmaking.
Nelson eventually became a chief producer of motion pictures for the United Methodist Church. While they appeared to be simple productions, the church-related topics brought about cinematic awards. One of the films won a CINE Golden Eagle, which is an award that recognizes excellence in non-theatrical movies and videos.
The United Methodist Church's film service was an excellent initiation for Nelson. His first independent film was Two Dollars and a Dream: The Story of Madame C. J. Walker and A'Lelia Walker. This biography explored the social, economic, and political history of black America from the 1860s to the 1930s. A black woman with humble beginnings, Sarah Breedlove (1867–1919) took the name of Madame C. J. Walker in 1906. She never again used the name Sarah, preferring to build her new life—with this new identity—as the head of a company specializing in cosmetic products for black women. She was one of the first African American women to become a millionaire. Nelson's maternal grandfather, F. B. Ransom, had been a lawyer and manager of Walker. This film was named best production in 1988 and best production of the 1980s by the Black Filmmaker Foundation.
After this initial work, Nelson created a special series for PBS. PBS produced several of his stellar films during the 1990s, and continued to uphold its mandate of diversity in the sponsorship and broadcast of films by African Americans. His first PBS production, Freedom Bags, chronicled the life of black domestic workers and their movement to the North during the 1900s. This production earned him first place for nonfiction at the 1991 Black Independent Film, Video and Screenplay Competition. The following PBS films, Methadone: Curse or Cure (1996) and Shattering the Silences: The Case for Minority Faculty (1998), earned him several awards, including Best Cultural Affairs documentary by the 1997 National Black Programming Consortium.
- Born in New York City on June 7
- Receives B.F.A. degree in film from Leonard David Film School at City College
- Produces first independent film
- Begins series of documentaries for PBS
- Receives funding from National Endowment for the Arts for Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords
- Receives best non-fiction film award by Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame for Look for Me in the Whirlwind
- Produces The Murder of Emmett Till, which causes U.S. Justice Department to reopen legal case; earns George Foster Peabody Award, Primetime Emmy Award, Distinguished Documentary Achievement Award, and Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize for film
While most of Nelson's films garnered little financial support, his Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Cor-poration for Public Broadcasting and the Ford Foundation. In this documentary, Nelson chronicled the rise of the black press from the founding of Freedman's Journal in lower Manhattan in 1827 until the 1960s.
Through this span of coverage, Nelson was able to show how the black press served as a voice for various social and intellectual drives. On the social front, the black press drove several of the campaigns against racism. This coverage was aimed at the black consumer, and it was written by leading black writers. These papers indicated that blacks existed in a world filled with inequalities. On the intellectual front, the black press had columnists such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, and Marcus Garvey. The film showed a vibrant community of black intellectuals and activists.
During production of Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords, Nelson became intrigued by a newspaper, The Negro World, published by Marcus Garvey. Garvey's story served as a basis for his next film, Look for Me in the Whirlwind. Marcus Garvey, born in Jamaica in 1887, founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which spread to the United States in 1916. The movement sought to achieve dignity and civil rights for black people by preaching pride of race and economic self-sufficiency. Garvey was widely known for his Back-to-Africa movement to establish a black-governed country in Africa. While dispelling myths often associated with Marcus Garvey, Nelson presents a unique side of Garvey, whose unknown aim was to build an empire of black business. Garvey had purchased property and owned several businesses. At his financial zenith, Garvey employed over one thousand people. As in most of his films, Nelson presented rarely seen coverage, complete with supported testimony of relevant individuals familiar with Garvey and his legacy.
The Black Filmmakers' Hall of Fame chose Look for Me in the Whirlwind as its first place overall winner in 2001, and at the Black International Cinema Festival in 2002, it was named best film/video documentary production in 2001.
Having an ability to look beyond usual subjects, Nelson produced The Murder of Emmett Till, a documentary that reawakened public interest in the 1955 murder of Emmett Till. Nelson's 2003 film used archival material to bridge the gap between racial divisions established in the Mississippi Delta since 1955. Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old African American visiting relatives in the South, was lynched because he was suspected of whistling at a white woman. The accused, two white men, were charged with murder, tried, and found innocent. The documentary highlighted the events that led to Till's death, the trial of his murderers, and the national and international outrage over the killing. Realistic details, vivid photographs, and interviews of relatives and witnesses in the film served as a catalyst for renewed public and legal interest in the case. The U.S. Justice Department cited the presence of witnesses unearthed in the film as a major factor in its decision to reopen the case. In conjunction with the film, Nelson's production company engineered a massive card and letter-writing campaign. That film earned Nelson the George Foster Peabody Award, the Primetime Emmy Award, the Distinguished Documentary Achievement Award, and the Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize, all in 2003.
Nelson lives in Harlem in New York City with his wife, Marcia, their twin daughters, Kay and Nola, and Nelson's daughter from a previous relationship. Nelson remains executive producer of Firelight Media, a nonprofit documentary company dedicated to giving voice to people and issues that are marginalized in popular culture.
Nelson, Jill. Volunteer Slavery. Chicago: Noble Press, 1993.
Jacques, Geoffrey. "The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords." Cineaste 24 (15 December 1998): 74-77.
Soukup, Elise. "We Owe It to Emmett." Newsweek 143 (24 May 2004): 6.
Steward, Rhonda. "Like Father, Like Son: The Making of a Milestone." New Crisis 111 (July/August 2004): 49-50.