Stanley Nelson

Stanley Nelson is among the premier documentary filmmakers working today. His feature-length films combine compelling narratives with rich and deeply researched historical detail, shining new light on both familiar and under-explored aspects of the American past.

In addition to honors for his individual films, Nelson and his body of work have garnered every major award in the industry.  He is a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, and was awarded an individual Peabody Award, the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts Sciences, and received the National Medal in the Humanities from President Barack Obama.

Nelson’s latest film, Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, the definitive look at the life and career of the iconic Miles Davis, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019. The screening marked Nelson’s tenth premiere at the prestigious festival in twenty years, the most premieres of any documentary filmmaker.

In 2018, Nelson directed a short film which examined the history and impact of racial profiling in public spaces. The Story of Access was screened at a mandatory training for 175,000 Starbucks employees across 8,000 stores, and received over a million views on companion websites.

Two of Nelson’s recent films, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities (2018) which chronicled the 150-year history and impact of HBCUs, and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2016), the first comprehensive feature-length documentary portrait of that iconic organization, broke audience records for African American viewership on the PBS series Independent Lens, and trended on Twitter for several hours. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution won the 2016 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Documentary Film.

Nelson’s two previous films, Freedom Riders (2010, winner of three Primetime Emmy Awards) and Freedom Summer (2014, Peabody Award), took a fresh look at multiracial efforts to register black voters and desegregate public transportation facilities in the Jim Crow South, critical events in the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s. Nelson’s 2003 film The Murder of Emmett Till (Sundance Special Jury Prize), about the brutal killing of a fourteen-year-old African American boy in Mississippi in 1955, an event that had a galvanizing effect on the mid-century civil rights movement, uncovered new eyewitnesses to the crime and helped prompt the U.S. Department of Justice to reopen the case.

Other notable films by Nelson include the Emmy nominated The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords (1999), a sweeping portrait of over a century of independent black journalism; Two Dollars and a Dream (1989), a biography of Madame C.J. Walker, the first self-made African American female millionaire; Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple (2006, Tribeca Film Festival Special Jury Prize), a riveting account of how cult leader Jim Jones led more than 900 followers to commit mass suicide in a remote corner of northwestern Guyana in 1978; Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind (2000, Sundance Premiere) a moving account of the life of the controversial early twentieth century black nationalist; and A Place of Our Own (2004, Sundance Premiere), a revealing portrait of the upper middle class African American resort community of Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, through the lens of Nelson’s sometimes difficult relationship with his father.

In 2000, Nelson and his wife, Marcia A. Smith, founded Firelight Media, a non-profit production company dedicated to using historical film to advance contemporary social justice causes, and to mentoring, inspiring and training a new generation of diverse young filmmakers committed to advancing underrepresented stories.  Firelight received a MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions in 2016.

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