Because history is written by the powerful, the Attica prison uprising of 1971 has often been shorthanded as a “riot,” its obvious racial overtones and implications for prison reform swept away with one word that vilifies the prisoners. The Black Panthers movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s remains so charged in public imagination that superstar Beyoncé’s fashion homage to the beret-wearing revolutionaries at the 2016 Super Bowl sparked backlash and police calls for boycotts.
Stanley Nelson’s documentary films work to undo these broad strokes of misinformed history, diving deep into context, nuance, and careful reporting to show us the much more complicated stories behind them, and the ways that our collective memory has failed us. In works like Attica, The Black Panthers, and Crack, Nelson’s painstaking journalism lays out a case that changes the ways we remember. His The Murder of Emmett Till, Freedom Summer, and Freedom Riders, meanwhile, make for a gold-standard trilogy for understanding the Civil Rights Movement. And still, his works don’t idealize their Black subjects. He covers all of the human angles, whether that means including heartrending interviews with the families of white prison guards killed at Attica or chronicling the messy and sometimes violent interpersonal conflicts that led to the Panthers’ demise.
Nelson’s multiple-Peabody-winning oeuvre is proof that every month is—or should be—Black History Month. “African American history is American history, and documentary filmmaking has proven to be a great forum for sharing lesser known, and in some cases virtually unknown, stories of the achievements, contributions, and struggles of Black people in America,” Nelson says. “And documentary film is one of the most accessible ways to share these stories—when audiences can see and hear stories directly from the people who experienced them it creates a greater level of empathy and understanding than any other form of storytelling.”
Born in New York City, Nelson worked for documentary filmmaker William Greaves after graduating in 1976 from City College of New York’s film school. Nelson’s first major work of his own was Two Dollars and a Dream: The Story of Madam C.J. Walker, which aired on PBS in 1988. He continued to document Black history from a variety of angles, from 1998’s The Black Press and 2000’s Marcus Garvey to 2019’s Boss: The Black Experience in Business and 2020’s Vick, about NFL quarterback Michael Vick’s rise and subsequent fall when he was prosecuted for running a dog-fighting ring.
One of Nelson’s hallmarks is the way he builds a narrative from revealing, emotional, and unvarnished interviews with his subjects, which are presented without any voiceover narration. The subjects are the storytellers. “I do not impose the dominant narrative of historical events on people when I interview them for my films,” Nelson says. “I start by simply asking them what happened from their perspective, and I begin building the narrative from there. When I interview people, I work really hard to create an environment in which they can be vulnerable and share details of their experiences without fear of judgment. And I think I’ve been able to build even greater trust with film participants over time, because they can look back at my previous work and see that my films are built directly from the testimonies of others.”