Stanley Nelson is the foremost chronicler of the African American experience working in nonfiction film today. His documentary films, many of which have aired on PBS, combine compelling narratives with rich and deeply researched historical detail, shining new light on both familiar and under-explored aspects of the American past. A MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, Nelson was awarded a Peabody for his body of work in 2016. He has received numerous honors over the course of his career, including the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts Sciences. In 2013, President Barack Obama presented Nelson with the National Medal in the Humanities.
Nelson’s latest documentaries Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom and Becoming Frederick Douglass premiered on PBS in October 2022. His previous documentary Attica, for SHOWTIME Documentary Films, was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 94th Academy Awards® and earned him the DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary. In 2021, Nelson also directed the feature film Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy for Netflix, which was a 2022 duPont-Columbia Awards Finalist, and Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre, with co-director Marco Williams, for the HISTORY Channel, which was nominated for three Primetime Emmy® Awards.
Nelson’s feature for American Masters, Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, a definitive look at the life and career of the iconic Miles Davis, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019, marking his tenth premiere at the prestigious festival – the most premieres of any documentary filmmaker. The film also won two Emmy® Awards at the 42nd Annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards and was nominated for Best Music Film at the 62nd Grammy Awards. Nelson’s film The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2016) is the first comprehensive, feature-length documentary portrait of that iconic organization, as well as a timely look at an earlier phase of Black activism around police violence in African American communities. The film won the 2016 NAACP Image Award.
Two of Nelson’s previous films, Freedom Riders (2010, three Primetime Emmy® Awards and included in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress) 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 Movement of the 1960s. Nelson’s 2003 film The Murder of Emmett Till, about the brutal killing of fourteen-year-old Till in Mississippi in 1955, uncovered new eyewitnesses to the crime and helped prompt the U.S. Department of Justice to reopen the case.
Other notable Nelson films 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 woman 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 remarkable and revealing portrait of the upper middle class African American resort community of Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, as well as a very personal portrait of Nelson’s sometimes difficult relationship with his father.
In 2000, Nelson, along with his wife, Marcia A. Smith, founded Firelight Media, a non-profit organization whose flagship Documentary Lab has helped to launch the careers of more than 100 nonfiction filmmakers of color, as well as Firelight Films, a production company that produces nonfiction films by and about communities of color.