Knocking on doors after film school in late 1970s New York City led a young Stanley Nelson, Jr., to William Greaves. For Nelson, meeting Greaves was a gift. The groundbreaking African American actor-turned-filmmaker—who ran a successful company producing documentary films as an independent and had also spent nearly a decade producing and directing for the National Film Board of Canada—took Nelson under his wing, inviting him to live with his family over the next few years.
“It’s hard for someone who was not around in that era to understand that African Americans weren’t involved in filmmaking,” explained Nelson in a phone interview. “[We were not] behind the camera [or] in front of the camera—anywhere.… What I learned with him was that it could be done.”
Nelson would carry forward his mentor’s imparted skills, work ethic and generosity in developing new talent to bring untold stories to the screen. His first foray came in 1987 with Two Dollars and a Dream, which told the story of African American icon Madam C. J. Walker, the first woman to become a self-made millionaire in the USA—and who also happened to employ several generations of Nelson’s family. The film boasts a remarkable archive matched to interviews with many elderly former Walker employees, whose testimony proved urgent and invaluable. Nelson’s focus on, as he says, “the people who make up the movement” was inaugurated in this film.
It is this approach that would lead Nelson to win many honours, including an International Documentary Association Career Achievement Award, a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and several Emmy nominations, including ones for The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords (1998), a deep historical study on the contributions of African American newspapers, and Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006), which revisits the 1978 Jonestown massacre. Nelson named Jonestown as one example where he learned to be “agnostic about the broadcast platform,” taking PBS beyond voiceover narration and, in his profile of Jim Jones’s sexual assaults, challenging the conventions of “safe” public TV content.
Nelson also secured a nomination for his widely regarded look back on the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015). His first Emmy win came in 2003 for The Murder of Emmett Till, produced for PBS’s American Experience series and partly credited with initiating a renewed interest in Till’s story that would eventually lead the US Department of Justice to reopen the investigation into his lynching. Nelson won again in 2012 for Freedom Riders, which told of the hundreds of Black and white US civil rights activists who risked their lives riding interstate buses and trains to push the US federal government into desegregating the South.
When approaching the archive, Nelson expands the idea of what counts with an uncompromising openness that allows him to find what others overlook. “Somebody thought it was historic when it was happening…but it may not be [in] the normal sources,” he shares. This impulse is what led him to pore over hours of never-before-seen footage to reintroduce the world to the fabled trumpeter, band leader and composer in the Grammy-nominated hit Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (2019).
In 2020, after more than 40 years in the industry, Nelson announced that Firelight Media, the production company he co-founded with his co-writer, producing partner and wife Marcia Smith, would name a research and development fund in honour of his late mentor, who died in 2014. The William Greaves Fund commemorates and continues the profound generosity of its namesake by providing mid-career filmmakers of colour with financial and mentorship support towards research, development and production.
Firelight Media offers several other initiatives that provide crucial support to early- and mid-career filmmakers of colour (bolstering Hot Docs favourites such as Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four (2016) and Mr. SOUL! (2018)). “These [kinds of development programs] existed,” he remembers, “and now all these things have gone away.”
Taking their inspiration from the sort of informal mentorship that filmmakers of colour have already relied on for decades, Nelson and Smith developed their own vision for how it could be formalized and paid forward. Their approach demands that the door to the industry open wider for those who come after, demonstrating a deep commitment to the documentary genre and an unwavering belief that, as Nelson says, "these stories are universal stories." Nataleah Hunter-Young