Stanley Nelson and Marcia Smith are celebrating 20 years of building Firelight Media into a company that tells eloquent stories about Black people, events and movements and is leading the charge empowering filmmakers of color to create their own work.
“The very first day, the two of us were sitting there looking at each other in our spare bedroom,” Smith recalls. “It was the fall of 2000 and we were like, ‘OK, great, we did it. Now, what’s it mean?’”
The initial conversations between Nelson and Smith about Firelight—who are partners in life as well as film—were about starting a nonprofit and what it would look like. Nelson, already making films under the banner Half Nelson Productions, changed the name to Firelight Media. “Both of us understood how unsustainable it was to be an independent documentary filmmaker,” Smith explains. “When we came together, we came with different skill sets; we wanted to build a sustainable way to do that. So how could we try to make that sustainable and not the kind of hand-to-mouth existence—which, frankly for a lot of people, it still is—to be a documentary filmmaker?”
Their collaborative process has evolved over the years. “Marcia has great skills as a writer,” Nelson explains. “She wrote the films and the proposals. She came out of philanthropy and knew that world very well. I work as the producer/director on the films. But from the beginning, I think one of the things that was essential was that we had different roles. I trusted Marcia implicitly not just as a writer and fundraiser but also [with] her opinion on the cut and filmmaking."
“I think that’s one thing that hasn’t changed: depending on where you are in the process, it’s a mad dash,” Smith explains. “That first fall it was a mad dash to finish the Garvey film [Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind], which premiered at Sundance in January 2001—“also with a ten-year old and one-year-old twins at the time,” Nelson interjects.
Twenty years later, the husband-and-wife team’s mad dash is two-fold. Firelight Films produces Nelson’s films and Firelight Media is the artist development nonprofit. The couple understands the labyrinth of challenges independent filmmakers face in applying for funding, grants and labs; the access and denials from gatekeepers and distributors; and the unending fortitude to tell uncompromising stories and cultivate the appropriate audiences.