Stanley Nelson

Stanley Nelson is the foremost chronicler of the African American experience working in nonfiction film today. His 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.

His latest documentary films include Attica, with Traci A. Curry, on the 1971 prison uprising, which premiered as the opening night documentary at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival and is now streaming on Showtime. Other recent films include Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy, for Netflix; the Emmy-nominated Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre, with Marco Williams, for the History Channel; and Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, which became Nelson’s 10th Sundance Film Festival premiere and first Grammy nomination for Best Music Film in 2020. Mr. Nelson’s film The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2016), is the first comprehensive feature length historical 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. Nelson’s two 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 struggles of the 1960s. Nelson’s 2003 film The Murder of Emmett Till, 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 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, Mr. Nelson, along with his wife, Marcia A. Smith, founded Firelight Media, a non-profit organization that supports and develops nonfiction filmmakers of color, and Firelight Films, a production company that produces nonfiction films by and about communities of color.

Nelson, a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, was awarded a Peabody for his body of work in May of 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.

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