NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER (Virtual)
MODERATOR: Greetings, everyone. Thank you all so much for joining us today. Welcome to the Foreign Press Centers’ program, “Representing the American Experience: Award-Winning Filmmaker Stanley Nelson in Conversation with Peter Nicks.”
I would like to note today’s program is on-the-record. We will post a video and transcript on our Foreign Press Centers website following the program.
It is my honor to introduce our speakers today. Stanley Nelson is today’s leading documentarian of the African American experience. His films combine compelling narratives with rich, historical detail to illuminate the underexplored American past. A MacArthur Genius Fellow, Nelson has received nearly every award in broadcasting, including five Primetime Emmy Awards, Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Emmys, the Peabody Awards, and the International Documentary Association.
In 2016, Nelson was honored with a National Medal in the Humanities from President Barack Obama. In 2019, the film Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool became Nelson’s tenth Sundance premiere and first Grammy nomination for Best Music Film in 2020. In the same year, Nelson’s four-hour series Vick about the complicated life and times of former NFL quarterback Michael Vick premiered on ESPN’s 30 for 30 to rave reviews.
Nelson’s works in progress include feature documentaries on the Attica prison uprising of 1971 and biographical documentaries on Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. His latest feature film, a harrowing look at the crack epidemic of the 1980s, is titled Crack: Cocaine, Corruption, and Conspiracy, and premiered on Netflix on January 11th, 2021.
With his partner, Marsha A. Smith, Nelson cofounded Firelight Media, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting emerging filmmakers of color and cultivating audiences for their work. Firelight Media’s Documentary Lab has supported over 100 filmmakers whose films have premiered in theaters and on broadcast, cable, and streaming platforms. Their films have won Emmy and Peabody awards and garnered accolades from festivals and critics alike.
Peter Nicks is an Emmy Award-winning cinematographer, producer, and director known for his immersive camera work and cinema verite style. His critically acclaimed feature documentary, The Waiting Room, won an Independent Spirit Award and was shortlisted for an Academy Award in 2012. The Force, the second in a trilogy of timely immersive documentaries exploring the interconnected narratives of health care, criminal justice, and education in Oakland, California won the 2017 Sundance directing prize. Homeroom, the final film in the trilogy, won the inaugural Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and will be released in the fall.
Nicks recently co-founded Proximity Media with fellow Oakland-based filmmaker Ryan Coogler and will oversee the nonfiction division. He is now in pre-production on Anthem, a feature documentary for Disney that will explore the political, musical, and cultural dimensions of the Star-Spangled Banner. Nicks is also developing a pair of narrative fiction projects, including Escaping Morgantown, an autobiographical exploration of his addiction and incarceration at the height of the U.S. war on drugs, and The Gold Coat, a film also set in the U.S. prison system loosely based on real stories of younger inmates caring for older inmates struggling with Alzheimer’s Disease. Nicks is the recipient of the SFFS/KRF Screenwriting Grant as well as a United States Artists Fellow. He received his B.A. in English from Howard University and his Master’s in journalism from UC Berkeley. He lives with his family in the San Francisco Bay Area.
As a reminder, the views expressed by non-U.S. government speakers are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. government. Following remarks by Mr. Nelson and Mr. Nicks and their conversation, we look forward to taking your questions. If you have a question during the program, you can use the raise hand Zoom feature or send your question in the chat.
So with that, over to you, and thank you so much.
MR NICKS: Thanks, Katie. Hi, Stanley.
MR NELSON: Thanks, Katie.
MR NICKS: It is so good to see you on Zoom. I feel like we should really be somewhere like in D.C., like at a real event doing this in front of like, a little crowd. But I guess for now, Zoom is going to have to suffice.
MR NELSON: Yeah. Maybe soon.
MR NICKS: Soon.
MR NELSON: Hopefully soon we’ll be back.
MR NICKS: Soon. Well, man, like I don’t think there’s enough time to sort of have the full conversation. I immediately go to one of your – I mean the arc, just hearing your bio and just thinking about the arc of your career and what you’ve accomplished is quite remarkable.
But for me, it’s – I think I first became aware of you because of your film A Place of Our Own, which takes place in Massachusetts and is so reflective of sort of my upbringing as a young black man in America and part of a black family, and sort of that story being so personal to me and not maybe as reflected in the culture. I mean, I suppose – I guess there was The Cosby Show and some of the fictional sort of stuff that we saw.
But what you sort of did over the years between that film and now was quite remarkable, and I was just wondering if you could just sort of give me a quick tour of sort of how you got from there to here.
MR NELSON: I think that one of the things that I’ve always wanted to do is challenge myself and kind of try to make different films in some way. A Place of Our Own, the film that you mentioned, is my only personal film. It was a film kind of about the black middle class and centered on Martha’s Vineyard. It came about because at the time I made the film – I think I started in 2000, 2001 – it was hard with – to, as an African American, talk about being middle class. Everybody had to be from the projects, and if you weren’t, you surely didn’t admit it. And my father was a dentist and my mother was a librarian and that’s what I come from, and I’m African American. And so we wanted to try to figure out how to make a film about people like me, and we settled on doing a film about – and it started out being a film about black resorts and black resorts in general around the country, and we couldn’t raise enough money. So then we centered it on Martha’s Vineyard. But again, it’s that – I’m really taking it one film at a time.
For a long time, my company Firelight and I did one film at a time. So we did A Place of Our Own, then we did The Murder of Emmett Till, then we did something else. And that’s what we did. And just recently, in the last probably four or five years, since it’s been – the documentary world has really changed and exploded, we made the decision to kind of expand and do more than one thing at once.
MR NICKS: I mean, was there a point where you understood how this was shaping up thematically, your body of work, the direction that it was heading in? Or was it an organic thing that was done without intention? How would you describe that?
MR NELSON: Yeah, I think it was done without intention. So I know that you started talking about a trilogy, at least maybe before the first film, The Waiting Room, but certainly really quickly afterwards I think. We never thought about that. We never thought about trying to make a bunch of civil rights films or whatever.
We – I worked a lot. I made, like, seven films for a show on PBS called American Experience. And the great thing about them is they would try to do quality films, but also they would come up with all the money. So they would give you – they would give me all the money to make a film. And for most of the films, we pitched the film to American Experience. So we were doing a film on Marcus Garvey that they then put in money and bought, and then we said, “Oh, what about a film on Emmett Till?” And then we said, “What about a film on Jonestown?” et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And so we did a number of films for them.
I think that one of the things that happened was that when we did The Murder of Emmett Till, who was an African American boy who was killed in the South in 1955, we found that there were still people alive – this was, again, in 2000 or so – still people alive who knew Emmett Till, and were there when he was kidnapped, and were part of the case, and that we really had hit a sweet spot, because the footage from 1955 just looks so good. It like – it just is like – it’s great, and it’s all shot on film. And then there were people who were still alive who could tell this story and tell the story really passionately because it was something that changed their lives. And we’re like, oh, that’s really the – a sweet spot.
So in some ways – then we went on to make Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer and Jonestown, and other things that were kind of in that sweet spot where people were old, but not too old.
MR NICKS: And you talked about how the documentary business or the landscape has changed radically. And I can think when I came out of film school in ’99 from that point – and that’s roughly sort of tracked a lot of the bulk of your – I guess that second half of your career. What did you see in terms of the receptiveness to funders in the marketplace, the interest, like, who cared about these stories? Did you see a shift or a change in your ability to raise money for these projects – how easy it was, how difficult it was – based on kind of what was happening in the documentary business?
MR NELSON: Yeah, I think that’s a many-faceted question, and I want to make sure that we hit at least on a few of them. That – it – so much has changed. So when I started making films, I mean, I graduated from film school in like 1976, right, so a long time ago. And there were only three networks – there was CBS, NBC, and ABC, and that was it. HBO did not exist. And then there was PBS, and ABC, NBC, CBS did not hire independent filmmakers. So if they wanted to make a documentary, which they hardly ever did, they would use their own producers, their news producers, and their news camera people, and make the film. They didn’t hire Stanley Nelson or Pete Nicks to do their film. So PBS was kind of the only outlet, and that’s kind of who we started working for. And then HBO came in and started funding documentaries.
But I think really the huge change has probably really been in the last five years – 10 years certainly, but maybe only the last five years. I think Sundance had a big deal to do with that, because they elevated documentaries in – equal to the fiction films. So at Sundance, your film might get four or five plays, the fiction films get four or five plays. They select 16 documentaries, they select 16 feature films. They give you a swag bag, they give the fiction films a swag bag.
MR NICKS: Yeah.
MR NELSON: So they elevated the documentary film. And then I think that it’s really the Netflix-ing of the world in the last five years – that Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, ESPN, so many different providers now fund documentaries. And they – and the difference is between PBS is they fund the whole thing. Like, Netflix does not give you half the money. They give you all the money. And there are certain strings that are attached. Like, they – when you finish the film, they own it. But they give you all the money. And so who gives you all the money? We’re doing a film for – in the last few years, we’ve done films for BET, ESPN, Showtime, Netflix, and PBS. And that’s just in the last couple years. So it’s changed.
But I just want to make sure that I include this, but for kind of filmmakers who are at the top of the food chain or near the top, it’s changed, right. But for film – for beginning filmmakers, or a lot of filmmakers that only have one film under their belt, they still can’t get in the door. Like, they can win a prize at Sundance or win an Emmy, but they still have a hard time getting in the door with Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, all these people.
So it’s changed for some people on the top, and for some it really hasn’t changed that much.
MR NICKS: Yeah, I think the popularity – I mean, I think more people are making documentaries, the price of entry is lower with all this sort of digital cameras and the gear. I mean, I think you can make a phone on this thing now. And so I think a couple things have happened. The avenues or the platforms that are looking for content have increased, but so have also, like, the number of people who want to make documentaries. Like, the popularity of it I think has really spiked. Even, like, in the fiction world, you’re seeing people – directors who don’t need to be making documentaries want to be making documentaries, because they – there’s something about it that’s just resonating sort of in our culture: the vibrancy, the immediacy of the stories, the – this notion of truth – how do we get it, sort of truth, I think is something that feels more dynamic now.
MR NELSON: I think also that the passion behind documentaries is still there. I mean, most – for most – for the vast majority of documentaries, they’re made because the filmmaker has a passion for making that subject. I think there are very few documentarians – I mean, some do, and they’re really good if they do it – they’ll say, “Oh, well, I’m going to make this film, I’m going to make some money.” But there’s no reason for making the vast majority of Hollywood fiction films except to make money. That’s what they’re there to do. They’re there to make money. So I think that a lot of times audiences really respond to the passion that they see in the filmmaking, and also that – the inventiveness, because so many filmmakers are now taking what’s the baseline of documentaries and exploding it and blowing it up and realizing that they can do so many different things.
MR NICKS: Yeah. And I mean, the power of your work is so impactful and present and reflective of all these questions that we’re digging into in terms of American identity and our story and our history. But you’re one guy. How do you – how do you scale Stanley? How do you scale that out? And I’m wondering, is that sort of why you started Firelight? Or sort of what’s the – how did Firelight sort of emerge in the arc of your own evolution as a storyteller? And what was the purpose of that in your mind?
MR NELSON: Yeah. So the main program that Pete’s talking about at Firelight Media is the documentary lab that’s been going on for, like, 11 years. I think you mentioned there’s over 100 graduates from the documentary lab.
MR NICKS: I think I was in the first class.
MR NELSON: Yeah, yeah. You were one of —
MR NICKS: Huh? Who is that?
MR NELSON: You are continuing to be one of our great success stories. (Laughter.) But I think.
But I think that it came up partially from that – from one, I was getting a lot of phone calls just – like people I didn’t know – hey, could you watch my cut or could you be a mentor or whatever of young filmmakers of color. And then talking to other filmmakers, especially black filmmakers, they all said, yeah, that’s – we’re all getting lots of those calls, we’re all getting hit up a lot to kind of help. And I think that also it came from the government and the TV stations and other places not giving that help anymore.
When I was getting into filmmaking, I got into filmmaking because I got on a government program that actually paid me – it was $80 a week, actually. I remember the number, it was $80 a week to be an apprentice filmmaker. Those programs don’t exist. I mean, nothing like that exists anymore, so that we were trying to think of maybe the work that we’re doing helping filmmakers and other people are doing helping filmmakers, we can kind of institutionalize. And we went into it with two assumptions. One is that there were enough good filmmakers out there with really good projects that we can work with, and two, that we could find funding to keep this thing alive and to make it work.
And both of those things really proved to be true. I mean, every year we get – we take about 10, 15 new filmmakers, and it’s a hard process. I think that last year, we got something like 200 applications, and that was during COVID, and that was down from 240, but because of COVID, not because we were actually applying – like in the middle of COVID, where people were scared to even pick up a pen or put a piece of paper in an envelope. But – so it’s going strong and we got a great class of filmmakers now. But that’s was really where it came from, to try to put a framework around something that I was already doing and so many other filmmakers were already doing.
MR NICKS: Yeah, and thematically, you’re associated with telling the African American story, and in some ways I see it as you’re just telling America’s story. And so much of America’s story is the inability to reconcile the present with the past and what that means in terms of looking into the future. And some of these recent projects that you’ve done, the crack cocaine (inaudible) project in particular, sort of the Attica project, Black Panthers, sort of relating to matters of justice and equity that are now resonating not just in America but internationally, kind of what we saw after George Floyd, people at the Berlin Wall reacting and responding. I was just wondering if you sort of could talk about this last slate of projects that you’ve done and sort of what led you to them.
MR NELSON: Yeah, I mean, I think that it’s really funny, because when we were doing The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which I think premiered in 2015, we were actually in the latter stages of editing. And I remember one of the assistant editors said, oh God, you’ve got to look at TV and go – and see what’s going on. And there was Black Lives Matter protests and the protest against African Americans being murdered by the police. And we were, like, just shocked because the Panthers started because of the very violent and racist police in Oakland, California. That’s how they started. And so we just – it kind of added another layer of meaning to the film.
But we started the film not knowing that. We started the film thinking that the Panther – Black Panther story had never been told, and had never been told the way that I remembered it, that as a young 15-year-old in New York City, the Black Panthers were heroes. They were heroes to everybody that we knew, and they weren’t scary, they were our – anyway, so – but they were very much heroes to us. And so we wanted to try to look at the story again and tell their story in a very different way. Also, again, it hit on that sweet spot because the Panthers that were 20 years old in 1966 were really ready to tell their story. And so many Panthers that we talked to, they weren’t – a lot of them weren’t the major figures, they were just part of the party. And they were like – they’re like old guys now that if you see in the supermarket, you’re like, “Would you hurry up?” And you don’t realize that you’re talking to a Black Panther.
And that – and I think that in the same way we started doing Crack, which is on Netflix now – plug – we started doing Crack because we just felt like the era had never really been investigated and it hadn’t really been looked at. And the devastation that came to so many of the users, and also the dealers who thought – they were young kids, and like somebody says in the film, he thought it was a goldmine for the hood. He could sell crack. He ended up being shot five times and doing two long terms in prison because he started selling crack when he was 16. But we thought that that story had not been told, that we wanted to get – have a chance to tell it.
MR NICKS: And the relationship between those themes and those touch points, this is part of what we’re – that I wanted to explore and sort of why I actually – even though it wasn’t originally conceived as a trilogy, right away I recognized when we were making The Waiting Room, looking at access to health care, that there were connection – or there were touch points that related to access to health care, and especially the story of crack in America – there’s some relationships with the mental health story or the mental – the lack of mental health for a lot of these communities and how that relates to the criminal justice system. And so I’m curious about the Attica project and sort of what led to that and what you were interested – what drew you to wanting to tell that story.
MR NELSON: Yeah. I mean, I think that Attica is a story that so many of us think we know, but it’s like The Panthers. When we were making The Panthers, we were making it, people would always say – I’d say, “I’m making a film about the Black Panthers,” and they would be like, “Well, why do you need another film about the Black Panthers?” And I would say, “Well – okay, well, tell me what other film there is about the Black Panthers. I’m not sure I know about another film. Like, seriously, tell me about a film.” And they’d be like, “Oh, oh.” And I think that there are little news stories, but there never had been a film about it.
And I think that that’s what we’re able to do, is kind of dig down deep, so that what happens is when the anniversary of Attica comes up, right, in September, usually some news director might say, “Oh God, Attica’s coming up next week, pull the clips and see if you can find one of the inmates,” and they – and the news guys will run out and it’ll be an old inmate sitting there in the house and they’ll do an interview and there will be the same clips that you’ve seen over and over again. But nobody takes a deep dive into it.
And to tell you the honest truth, part of the reason why we did The Panthers, right, and part of the reason why we’re doing Attica is because we knew that there was footage, right? We knew that the media loved the Panthers and the Panthers loved the media, and so that there was tons of footage about the Panthers that had never been gathered together and used.
Attica – part of the story that most people don’t know is that the first day, the inmates said, “We want the press to come in,” like that’s one of their demands. “We demand that the press will come,” that they bring the press in here because that was the only way the inmates thought that they would stop the law enforcement from coming back in and killing them. So they wanted media in, and they invited cameras in, and there were tons of incredible footage of Attica as it went through the five days of the rebellion.
MR NICKS: Yeah. I’m starting to get obsessed with, like, footage, like found footage films. Like, I remember seeing Apollo 11 and just being, like, blown away by that, like, “What?” Like – and then Questlove’s film The Summer Of Soul, like that footage was just sitting in a basement in a church. And I’m a verité filmmaker, so – but to me, archival is verité.
MR NELSON: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s really interesting. I just saw Time last night, Gary Bradley’s film, and I think it’s really interesting that Questlove and Gary Bradley both won docs for archival films, where they discovered footage and it became the backbone of films. They both won awards at Sundance this year.
MR NICKS: Yeah, there’s something resonant about it. I got a million more questions, Stanley. We’re going to get to – the group has some questions for you too, but the last thing I kind of – I’m curious about, I don’t know if I’ve ever asked you this, but obviously, I’m toying with it and have gotten roped into some fiction work and there’s a long history of documentarians who have moved from nonfiction to fiction – maybe not permanently, but have done projects. Have you ever entertained that? Are you curious about it? Are you interested in it?
MR NELSON: Yeah. I mean, I think that – I went to film school, not journalism school. I went to film school and I was really interested. All I was interested in were making fiction films. I had a – D.A. Pennebaker was the kind of head professor, the kind of king of – one of the kings of cinema verité filmmaking. And I would always have arguments with him because I was like, “Oh, cinema verité is dead, I’m not interested.” And low and behold, I ended up making docs.
But I think that – it’s like – and I think probably I’m getting too old, that I’m happy where I am. And also, I know that so many times, fiction films – you go through so much BS, that a documentary filmmaker will tell me, “Oh, I made a successful doc and now I’m making a fiction film.” And then two, three, four years later, the film still hasn’t been made.
MR NICKS: Yeah, think very carefully. I would tell everybody out there, every documentary filmmaker, just think very carefully before you tread into that.
MR NELSON: Yeah. And so – and in many ways, when I see the filmmakers that make the jump and it works, I’m like, “Wow,” because it can work.
MR NICKS: It can be done.
MR NELSON: And it can work very, very well. But I think that I don’t have two or three years to waste – (laughter) – anymore. If I was younger and the landscape looked like it did, I would definitely be trying, pitching new – the fiction films.
MR NICKS: No, I think we’re all going to be very well served by you continuing to do what you’re doing.
Katie, do you want to pop out for some questions?
MODERATOR: Thank you. Thank you so much for sharing that fascinating, wonderful conversation with us and our members.
So I’d like to remind all of our participants that they can raise their hand on the Zoom feature – oh, also in person, yes – if they have a question, or they can also ask a question or indicate they have a question in the chat.
We actually received a chat from Oyiza Adaba from Africa-Related in Nigeria in the chat, and so I’d like to call on her first for her question. Thank you.
QUESTION: Hello. Thank you, Foreign Press Center, for doing this. This is great and it’s right up my alley. It’s great to meet you, Mr. Nelson. I have 1,001 questions, but I’ll try and limit it to the time.
What is the – in today’s culture of cancel culture, how would you – how would you continue to make films that remain truthful to our history? That’s my first question.
And then secondly, as a budding filmmaker that is – I’m about to release my first feature documentary film in the fall. I’d be obliged if maybe you can take a look at that. It’s about a human person, a living human. So how did you tap into – what did you tap into doing Miles Davis: Birth Of Cool? And when you take human stories as – when they – whether they are alive or gone, what do you get into to be able to achieve – tell the person’s true story?
MR NELSON: Well, I mean, Miles Davis is a character. He’s a bigger-than-life character so that there was so much to tell. One of the reasons why I felt that it would make a great film is, one, because of the great music Miles made, but also because Miles – he was so complicated. I mean, one of the questions that we asked ourselves in the edit room we they ended the production was: How could a man who was in so many ways a terrible human being to people make such beautiful music, and what was going on with him?
And so that we wanted to tell – we ended up, I think, telling the story not only of Miles the musician and the music, but also of African Americans and definitely African American men in like the latter half of the 20th century, because that’s what Miles was, and he was so much more than a musician. I think it’s really hard to – a lot of times to tell films about artists, because you have to try to transport music or painting or sculpture onto film. That can be really, really, really difficult. But I think that Miles was such a unique character and that we found so many incredible people who knew him and could talk about him and that became characters themselves.
QUESTION: Yeah. And my first question was: In today’s cancel culture, how would you tell an authentic story?
MR NELSON: You know, I’m not – I hear that term. I’m not sure what cancel culture is exactly. What it is, I don’t know. I’m not sure what it —
QUESTION: History being distorted and all of that. But thank you again for your time.
MR NELSON: Look, I think, though, that when we deal with historical films, I mean, there are facts and there are truths. And we can sometimes take leeway, and sometimes we can’t. So that to give an example, if anybody has seen Judas and the Black Messiah, right, Fred Hampton’s lawyer who prosecuted the case against the Chicago police and the FBI, we said to – the story was going around that Fred Hampton had been drugged. And we said, well, was he drugged or not? And he said, well, they did three toxicology reports, and the first toxicology report came back that he wasn’t drugged, then the second toxicology came back that he was drugged, then the third toxicology came back that he wasn’t drugged. And so I was like, yeah, well, that’s great, but was he drugged or not? And he said, well I would not go with that story.
And it’s fine for Judas and the black Messiah, right, because that’s – it’s a fiction film. That’s why I’m calling it a fiction film. We felt we couldn’t go with it, and the murder of Fred Hampton was bad enough without saying something that we had any doubts about.
Also, because Breitbart, the whatever it is, Breitbart came after us for facts in the film. And because we were – it was on PBS, if it was on PBS, we had to answer their challenges. And we answered them successfully, but they were – they challenged stuff. They obviously got somebody to write like a 10-page paper about like, “You said that Huey Newton was killed at three in the morning, but he was killed at 4:12. And he was not killed at the northwest corner, he was killed at the southeast corner,” stuff like that.
So we have to be extra careful about the facts and making sure that everything that we say can be backed up because we’re making documentary films. We’re not making a Hollywood —
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take [another] question. Niyi Fote from TheNews2 Brazil has had his hand raised, and then we’ll go to you, Martin, for the third question. Thank you.
QUESTION: Hello, good afternoon.
MR NELSON: Good afternoon.
QUESTION: So I’m Niyi. Actually, I was born in Nigeria, and I represent Brazil here. So I have like two questions for you. The first one is like, you said your father was a dentist and your mom was a librarian. Did any of this influence your decision in going into filmmaking?
MR NELSON: I think only in that my father was a dentist who worked for himself, and that that’s what I saw. If your father or your mother works for the post office or something, you may want to work for a company. I saw my father who had his own office and worked for himself. That seemed natural to me, and so that I would – I think that it helped with my decision to go into independent filmmaking and not feel like I had get a steady job or I – so that I would be nervous about my future if I did not get a nine-to-five job.
QUESTION: Okay, my second question is that, okay, like, I don’t know if you have any plan to go into a documentary on COVID-19. And principally, the situation in Brazil right now, I don’t know. So how do you go about what you’re going to – I don’t know about the project. I don’t know because like in Brazil, the situation is very, very complicated. The president is not in favor, is like – people like dying, et cetera. So how do you collect all your information to be able to come out with a documentary on that? I don’t know if you want to go into documentary on COVID-19.
MR NELSON: Okay, so at this point, I have no plans to make a documentary about COVID-19. I think that there’s a tons of docs I’m sure that are come coming out that I didn’t know about, about COVID-19. Some have already come out. So I’m not planning to make one. We may have one or two in the lab, but I’m not sure. And actually, I was just talking to my wife about Brazil this morning, and she mentioned that the president has refused the vaccine.
MR NELSON: Which is just insane. It’s insane. It’s criminal. It’s not only insane, it’s criminal. But, unfortunately, I have no plans to make a documentary about this.
QUESTION: Okay. So thank you very much.
MR NELSON: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll go to Martin Burcharth from Information, Denmark.
QUESTION: Yes, hi, Stanley. This is Martin Burcharth. So in the very beginning of your remarks, you touched on how you got to become filmmakers as an African American. And I wanted to ask you to talk a bit about how difficult was to break through, and then make some kind of comparison to what we’re seeing nowadays, and particularly after George Floyd’s – the murder of George Floyd. Because what we’re seeing, I believe, is a great sensitivity on the part of kind mainstream media and film industry as well, to be more inclusive of African Americans and minorities in general, and as well as Native Americans. And I see that you’ve done a movie – a documentary about Wounded Knee. And so do you believe that this movement towards being more inclusive is going to hold up? I wonder, because I think we’re seeing some sliding back from last spring. And so it’s something I think to watch, but I wonder what your take is on that.
MR NELSON: Yeah, I mean, I think that I’ll answer that question first. I mean – yeah, so anyway. I think that there have been some changes, and I think – I’m right where you are, I think that we’re all, especially African Americans, people of color, like, okay, well, how long is this going to hold up? And what’s going to actually happen and what’s going to actually change?
I think we’re living in a weird, weird time in America. If you say that there’s real change and that people are trying to change, it’s also under the frame – in the same frame as Donald Trump, and Donald Trump almost got re-elected. I mean – and I mean, you couldn’t think of a worse candidate ever than Donald Trump. I mean – whatever you think about Donald Trump, he was a bad candidate. He just – he said that people should shoot Drano or something into their veins. People were – three or 400,000 people had died at that point. He talked about grabbing – molesting women. Just – I mean, he was just horrible. He was a bad candidate. But he almost won. So – and that’s – and that’s when we’re talking about advances being made.
So I think in some ways, advances are being made, but I think that one of the things that I think happens in this country – I’d love for Pete to – also to talk about this – one thing that happens in this country is when advances are made, then suddenly there’s a – what do you call it – re-entrenchment or something.
MR NICKS: Backlash.
MR NELSON: And they – and the backskid. “Okay, well, no, no, no, no, no.” So I think that that’s part of what America is: Obama gets elected and then Trump comes after him. Pete, you got anything to add?
MR NICKS: Well, I think we tend to find ourselves at the center of very divisive issues. We did with The Waiting Room in terms of identifying the values of a nation, like how should you provide health care to the people, criminal justice, what are the – what is the role law enforcement in society. And so we would find ourselves in these spaces that were incredibly dynamic, where you would have people on extreme ends of these questions. And I think right now, we tend to be more exposed to the extreme manifestations, sort of emotional.
And we’re doing this work with our son. We’ve had a very difficult year as a family, and he’s going through a difficult time – he’s 15 – and a lot of the work that we’re doing with the therapy is about how we have an emotional mind and we have a rational mind, and if you look at also that Venn diagram and where those overlap and that sliver in the middle is the wise mind, and sort of – and trying to find that – that’s the sort of state that you want to try to find yourself in. And I think right now increasingly those extremes get more exposure, we’re more exposed to them, whether it’s through the media or through social media.
I don’t know that – I don’t know the answer to what – to how true this is in terms of a reflection of where people are at. It’s true what Stanley says, that this guy got – he’s got 80-some-odd million followers on Twitter, and he got – he generated – he was able to get the votes of these people. But I think those people are still disconnected from who he is as an individual. They have their own lives. They are not him, in other words. And I think the stories that we tell, and what I strive to do, is actually get into spaces to tell their story as well, because I think that there is a disconnect, and then we tend to sort of have these groups. And it’s not just in America; I think this is a global phenomena, what’s happening.
And storytelling, to me, is one of the great antidotes to that, whether that’s naive or not, Stanley, I think that that’s part of what we try to do, and that there’s an empathy-building or – in all the arts that can cumulative and address these issues, which are very real.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up questions to both of you? What is your visceral reaction – what was your visceral reaction to what followed the murder of George Floyd, and then the sudden explosion of visibility for African Americans in the media and other places, and even like in companies, like they pledged to do this and that, racial equity. What was your visceral reaction to that initially, and how do you feel about it now?
MR NELSON: My initial reaction was great, and I still feel great. I don’t – I don’t – if somebody gives me a hundred dollar bill, I’m not going to question their motives. I’d take it and put it in my pocket. And so that’s it. I mean, that’s how I feel. I mean, it’s really interesting. The New York Times kind of – I was talking to my sister, she was calling it the Black Times, because it’s like – and she’s a writer who used to work for The Washington Post, among other things. But it’s like, I opened the Times Magazine last week, and it was a women’s fashion on the first 30 pages – 25 of ‘em had to be black folks. And it’s like, suddenly – I mean, I really think that in some ways – and I don’t think it’s a lie, I think some of these institutions are like, looking at themselves, like, “Oh my God. Oh my God.” Like, look around.
I mean, when I – I won a Lifetime Emmy award, and I gave a speech. And then – a whole auditorium at Lincoln Center filled with people, and I said, “Look around.” There’s no people of color in here. And you guys are all the people who hire people. You have to look around. You have to change things, because so many people, like – they hadn’t even noticed. And I do believe that oftentimes it’s not anything malicious, it’s just the way things are being done.
I’ll tell you one story that’s really interesting. When we were doing The Murder of Emmett Till, we were in Mississippi. And we were talking – we wanted a section in the film to be white folks, white Mississippians talking about racism and how it was in the ‘50s, right. And we were talking to this guy, he was pretty old, and we’re saying – well, and I said to him, like, “Well, what did you used to – what did you think about the fact that black people weren’t – were not allowed to sit anywhere in the movie theaters except the balcony? What did you think about the fact that when a white person walked down the street a black person had to step off the sidewalk and let them pass?”
And he said, “What? That’s not – wait, what? What? Really? Oh God, yeah. Oh yeah, God.”
QUESTION: He’d forgotten, or he —
MR NELSON: He didn’t notice. He never noticed. And it’s the same thing with the New York Times, like having no black people in the articles or a TV show that will interview – it’ll be about heart surgery and it’ll interview 20 people, heart surgeons, and they’ll all be white men. All of the sudden people are saying, “Oh, well, maybe we should get a woman in there or maybe we should get a black person in there.” And all I’m saying is, “Yeah, you should.” I’m not hating them.
QUESTION: Great story. Thank you.
MR NELSON: Yeah.
MODERATOR: Thank you. I’d like to ask our members, if they have any additional questions, they’d like to raise their hand.
If not, we received a question in the chat, which was that during your conversation you talked about the role of journalists in some of the historical events that you are now doing documentaries on. And I just – given that our audience today is the foreign press, I was just wondering if you had any thoughts regarding the intersection between documentary filmmaking and journalism.
MR NELSON: I think that we’re working in a form of journalism. I don’t usually consider myself exactly a journalist. I’m a filmmaker, but I’m also a journalist. I’m a filmmaker first, journalist second; it’s kind of a marriage of the two. But I mean, I think journalists have played a huge role in our history, and that shows over and over again in the Civil Rights Movement, the incredible journalists who went into the South and did incredibly brave things. I mean – so I think journalists are really needed.
And I also think that one of the things that’s also been important throughout the history of America is journalists coming here and seeing things differently and seeing things differently that we don’t see, that we don’t – white Americans might not see that black people have to get off the sidewalk, but a journalist coming from a foreign country’s like, “What? Wait, what’s going on here?” And I think that traditionally foreign journalists have been really important in making not only the world see America, but America see itself.
That was good, right? That was like a speech or something.
QUESTION: I liked that.
MR NELSON: We should be (inaudible) because that was like so good. (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: Yes, that was great. Thank you. And so with that, we just have a few minutes, so I’d like to ask if you have any final remarks, perhaps, to – before we conclude our program today from Mr. Nelson and Mr. Nicks.
MR NELSON: Mr. Nicks? I —
MR NICKS: Well, I’m really excited to see what you’re doing with Attica, and so what are the plans for that? Where are you in the making of it and, without giving anything away, like, what should we expect?
MR NELSON: So Attica, it will be on Showtime, and it’s for the 50th anniversary of – what do they call – oh, the commemoration of the rebellion in Attica, 50 years, in September. September 9th through 13th I think were the days.
And I mean, again, we’re telling the story. We’ve gotten, I think, together materials that have never been pulled together before. We’ve – I think we’ve interviewed probably eight to ten inmates who were part of the rebellion, National Guard, the observers who came in, camera people, news people that came in, all of those.
And I think we’re telling a story that kind of hasn’t been told, that forgotten in all of this was the reason why they rebelled, that they were given one roll of toilet paper a month; they were given one shower a week. They were fed on 63 cents a day. That’s what the prison spent on food. And that the rebellion was about the conditions in the prison and trying to change the conditions in the prison, that in this country we lock up more people than anybody in the world, and when we lock them up, we just – we lock them up as a way of forgetting them, and that – that we start thinking about it in a different way.
I’d also like to say that Crack: Cocaine, Corruption, and Conspiracy is on Netflix, Miles is on Netflix, and Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is on Amazon.
MR NICKS: Great. Well, thank you so much for sharing some of – a little bit of your journey. And we look forward to seeing more from Stanley Nelson. I look forward to keep getting inspired by you, because you were one of the first that inspired me and launched me on my career, as you did for so many others. And I think that’s what’s so significant, not just about what you’re doing with Firelight, but the example that you’ve set and the inspiration that you are giving to my generation, the next – I’m Gen X, so like, I’m starting to fade, fade off, but like, this new generation, these young people, the people that were out marching in the streets after George Floyd, they all have something to say, and I think they’re going to be looking at your work and being inspired by it. I hope that they see your work. I think part of it is directing and not letting us forget what’s come before us and reminding ourselves of our own stories, so thank you for that.
MR NELSON: Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you, everybody for the opportunity to speak, and I’m just so glad that I played a little part in unleashing Pete Nicks onto the world.
MR NICKS: Yes, I will. (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: Well, thank you again so much. It’s been a great honor and privilege to have you with us today, and this concludes our program. We will post the transcript and video on our website. So with that, thank you again so much.