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Documentary fest gets 'genre pioneer'

By DAN LYBARGER Special to the Democrat-Gazette

This article was published October 6, 2017 at 1:52 a.m.

Documentarian Stanley Nelson will be honored with the Career Achievement Award at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, which runs through Oct. 15.

Stanley Nelson has a career writing, producing or directing documentaries that fills a long page on the Internet Movie Database.

And while his films, like The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Freedom Riders, Freedom Summer and Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple have played at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, he has never attended until now.

Nelson, 62, who is a three-time Emmy winner and a recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" grant, will present his new film Tell Them We Are Rising, which explores the history and the future of historically black colleges at 2:30 p.m. Oct. 14 (for more details go to www.hsdfi.org). He'll also be presented with the festival's Career Achievement Award.

Nelson's movies challenge preconceptions of historical movements and avoid having an "all-knowing" narrator explaining to viewers how they should view his footage. Speaking from Cincinnati, Nelson explains how ignoring or sidestepping icons can result in better films and better history.

Q. How did you react when you found out you'd be receiving the award at Hot Springs?

A. I was very, very flattered. Although I must say, I kind of learned about it from a strange route. Someone just mentioned it to me in passing and said, 'You've got to be there an extra day because they're giving you this award.'

Nobody mentioned it to me.

But it's great. I'm looking forward to it. I've always wanted to go to the Hot Springs festival but I've never been there before. I've had films in it, but I've never been able to go. People have always raved about it.

Q. In addition to making a movie about historically black colleges (HBCs), you've also taught at one. What was that like?

A. I've taught at Howard University and also at Morgan State. It was a great experience. It was great to come and give something back. My father went to Howard. The students were really appreciative and great students. It was a joy.

Q. In the film, you point out that black colleges frequently allow their students to escape from some of the social pressures that exist on campuses where they are a small part of student body.

A. Historically, black colleges have been and still are a kind safe intellectual space for young black people, and that's a very important thing to have. Black people can sit together in the lunchroom and talk, and nobody's looking at them going, 'Why are you all sitting together?'

Q. The film does point out, however, that HBCs educated people such as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who helped shatter "separate but equal."

A. But I think that happened again and again in the African-American community. It's what happened with black baseball. Basically, the black baseball leagues put themselves out of business. They fought to integrate the major leagues, and now they don't exist. Black newspapers fought to integrate white newspapers, and now they no longer exist in the way that they did.

Black colleges in the '60s were a place where you had a group of black young people who could get together and who could talk about problems, and movements could take off at those colleges. Part of what African-Americans have always been fighting for is general equality in this country. So, it's really natural that a lot of the civil rights movement got its start at black colleges.

Q. Your film also presents a more nuanced perspective on some of the schools because while Booker T. Washington was an important education pioneer, his Tuskegee Institute only offered vocational training. It wouldn't have produced a scholar like astronomer Neil Degrasse Tyson. Washington inadvertently perpetuated the idea that black students couldn't handle the same kind of studies that white students have.

A. Largely that's what they were about, and that's what Booker T. Washington was proposing for a majority of black people. The interesting thing we say in the film is that Booker T. Washington's daughter went to a majority white school.

I think that Booker T. Washington deserves a new look because a lot of the things he was advocating were very, very dangerous. I thought that this was fascinating because here he was, the most famous and the most powerful black man in the country, and he was a college president. Northern industrialists and the Southern planter elite sort of picked up the idea and ran with it and lavished money and fame on Booker T. Washington.

He's an interesting guy. He thought that what he was doing was the best way for African-Americans to progress, that it would take 100 years and in 100 years we would be equal with white folks. This guy was born a slave, and that's where he came from.

We thought it was really interesting with the contrast between him and (W.E.B.) Du Bois, who was born in the north and went from Fisk to Harvard and then to further studies in Germany. As someone says in the film, he might have been the most educated man in the United States.

Q. In both Tell Them We Are Rising and The Black Panthers, you call out northern racism, as you just mentioned.

A. In Tell Them We Are Rising, there's a part where we talk about how the town New Haven (home of Yale University) bars the coming of a black college. This is Connecticut. So many times we look at it as just being in the south, and I think it's important to realize that it was the whole country. There was a law in Ohio that said that any black person who could read or write had to get out of the state by sundown (laughs).

Q. From Tell Them We Are Rising and The Black Panthers to Freedom Summer and Jonestown you document the achievements and the dark side of mass social movements.

A. I'm really kind of interested in institutions and movements. I just find that fascinating. I'm just not that interested in films about the "great men and women" of history.

We wanted to show the rank and file and show as much as we could to show you the Panthers you never saw in the movies, that were not the four or five or six spokespersons, what it meant to be an "everyday" Panther.

If you can get on YouTube, you should look at Jonestown. That's a really interesting film. Jim Jones was insane from the beginning (laughs). I think that was part of it, but what's more interesting to me ... what we tried to do was give you a sense of what it meant to be part of the rank and file.

Q. Do you think there's more of a market for documentaries?

A. Definitely. I think that we're in a golden age of documentaries. There's so much interest, and there's so much inventive stuff that's being done in documentary. There's also so many outlets with the advent of cable and streaming providers that are putting money into documentaries.

I think there's a tendency in Hollywood to be kind of doing the same thing over and over again. In a way, I think that people are looking to documentaries to see something a little bit different. A lot of times you feel like they're just after your money with Hollywood films.

MovieStyle on 10/06/2017

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