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Filmmaker Stanley Nelson: Hollywood has a racist history

Stanley Nelson is an Emmy Award winning film director and producer. He chatted with msnbc about his mentor Williams Greaves and historical racism in Hollywood.
Director/writer/producer Stanley Nelson during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 2015 in Park City, Utah.
Director/writer/producer Stanley Nelson during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 2015 in Park City, Utah.

msnbc is celebrating black history by profiling game-changing black musicians and film directors throughout February. 

Stanley Nelson is a three-time Emmy Award winning film director and producer, a MacArthur "Genius" fellow, and a National Humanities Medal recipient from New York City. He recently chatted with msnbc about his mentor, documentary film pioneer Williams Greaves, his latest film "The Black Panther: Vanguard of the Revolution," and the historical racism in Hollywood. 

"What no one wants to talk about is that Hollywood, in it’s history, was of the most racist institutions in this country ... If you watch a movie from the 30s, 40s, and 50s, you see a black person come on screen and you cringe."'

Describe who you are and what you do in one breath:

I am a producer and director of documentary films.

Describe some of the sights and sounds from your childhood and how they have influenced your films?

I grew up in Harlem in the '50s and '60s. My father was a dentist, my mother was a librarian. Some of the sights and sound that I remember was playing in the neighborhood, and fathers and mothers coming home from work. One of the reasons that I got into filmmaking was that I wanted to put in films the people and the lives that I knew and I remembered growing up that were not the images, especially of African-Americans, that I saw on screen.

Can you identify how you chose your subjects?

When we made the “Murder of Emmett Till,” it was one of the first civil rights movies that I made. There was a special attachment that people could have to the film because you were able to find witnesses, who were still around, who could talk in first-person about what happened. It adds a layer of emotionality that can connect to the audience.

As a filmmaker, the civil rights period is one where there’s footage, music, and it’s just old enough to look cool visually, than if you are doing a film about the '90s.

What was that "ah ha" moment when you realized documentary filmmaking was you?

It was a slow long process for me. I went to film school and I was really interested in fiction films because I didn’t know anything about documentary. I got a job with William Greaves and started working with him on documentary films ... I realized there was so much freedom in documentary films.

Do you have an anecdote or a lesson you learned from William Greaves that you carry with you?

When I first started working with Bill, I was riding in his car one day and he said, “We’re going down to Atlanta to shoot a film [Just Doin’ It: A Tale of Two Barbershops] and I want you to do sound.” I said, “I haven’t done sound before.” “Well you took sound in film school, right? Than you know how to do sound,” Bill said. From that I learned that it’s really important to learn the different technology, and it’s not rocket science –  you can figure it out.

One Stanley Nelson film everyone should see:

"The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution."

I saw the trailer and found it interesting when one of the subjects said that she was a cocktail waitress in a white strip club two weeks before she joined the Black Panther Party.  It reminded me about what Dawn Porter said about portraying black folks in three dimensions. 

It’s a different way of looking at African-Americans. There’s a difference between the Oscars … there’s a difference between nominating African-Americans or scattering them around the audience so we see them. So it looks like there are some African-Americans involved, but they’re really not.

Given that your work is so entrenched in history from '60s, '70s, '80s, how does it inform how you look at the world present day?

History always reflects on today. One of the main things I’ve learned about history is that it’s a roller coaster ride. We as Americans’,  especially we as African-Americans, want history to be this upward progression, “Up from Slavery.” But it’s not, it’s up and down and all around.

Have you identified similarities or differences in the Civil Rights movements and present day movements?

I hope you get a chance to see "Panthers", our latest film. The Black Panthers almost started 50 years ago as a result of police brutality in Oakland, California. That’s how it started, policing the police which is a direct connection to where we are today … so obviously there are so many similarities to what happened then and what’s happening now.

I also did this New York Times op-doc and it compares the Panther movement with what’s been happening in Ferguson.

If you had to choose two films and two songs to play on repeat … forever (only one can be yours):

Citizen King” and I don’t have another one. 

Oscars aside, what were some of your favorite films and documentaries of the year?

I liked “Selma” a lot, that was probably by far my favorite film in terms of filmmaking, passion, and meaning. “Citizenfour” and “Last Days in Vietnam” were really well made. I saw “(T)error” at Sundance and I liked that a whole lot. 

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What did you take away from the 2015 Oscar nominations and winners?

What no one wants to talk about is that Hollywood, in it’s history, was of the most racist institutions in this country. You don’t see black people. If you watch a movie from the '30s, '40s, and '50s, you see a black person come on screen and you cringe … Hollywood has tried to move up with the times, but it’s starting from further back than a lot of other places. 

The snub of “Selma” was just awful. I’m on the Academy, so I get to see all of the films. The snub of "Selma" was wrong; I’ve seen the other films.

What can we expect from you in 2015? 

We are doing a theatrical release of the “Panthers” in September. We're starting on a film “Tell them we are rising” for PBS on historically black colleges that helped shaped this country. It’s part of a series “America Revisited,” that includes “The Black Panthers”, and then a four hour show on the slave trade “Creating a New World.”

Advice for aspiring filmmakers?

Learn the technology. Learn how to edit. Learn the lighting. Learn how to use a camera. And it’s important to learn why you want to make films … if you don’t love it, work at the post office.

What is your greatest form of validation as an artist?

I’ve had so many. I’d say, getting a [National] Humanities Medal from Obama this summer. 

If you had a chance to talk to President Obama, what would you say?

Have fun! Don’t let them get you.

If you had to rewrite history …

I would cancel the Atlantic Slave Trade. I would want to see what history would be like without it. 

Black History Month as a child in school? What do u make of it today?

I don’t think there was “Black History Month” when I was a child. On the one hand black history should be every month, but on the other hand, at least for a month we can talk about black history. I’m happy that for some short time we think about African-American history. Happy in the context in that it should be every month. It should be part of our history all the time. 

Keep up with Stanley on Twitter @StanleyNelson1 and Firelight media