Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival
, (December 3-6, 2015 in Sag Harbor, N.Y.) will honor the MacArthur Genius Award winning Director-Producer-Writer Stanley Nelson with a Career Achievement
Award at its Gala on December 5. Previous honorees are Richard Leacock (2011), Susan Lacy (2012), DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (2013), Barbara Kopple
“ It is a great privilege to present our 2015 Career Achievement Award to Stanley Nelson. His award-winning documentary films on social justice issues were
early windows into race relations. His latest film, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard Of The Revolution”
continues the provocative dialogue, even more relevant in America today. We honor his commitment to honesty, truth and artistic rigor.”
-Jacqui Lofaro, Founder and Executive Director, Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival
Stanley Nelson is the co-founder and Executive Director of Firelight Films and co-founder of Firelight Media, which provides grants and technical support
to emerging documentarians. Firelight is one of nine nonprofit organizations around the world to receive the 2015 MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. The Award, recognizes exceptional nonprofit
organizations which have demonstrated creativity and impact, and invests in their long-term sustainability with sizable one-time grants.
With 35 films and multiple industry awards to his credit, Nelson is acknowledged as one of the premier documentary filmmakers working today. He has a
clear, vibrant and consistent voice, creating evocative films which document issues of social injustice. His films have earned five Primetime Emmys, two
awards from the Sundance Film Festival, and two Peabodys, among other honors. With a dogged insistence on finding new voices and new witnesses, Nelson has
illuminated stories that we thought we knew, particularly about the African-American experience. Aside from being a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, he is a
member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and a recipient of the NEH National Medal in the Humanities presented by President Obama in 2014.
I had an opportunity to speak with Stanley recently concerning the announcement of his Career Achievement Award from the Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film
You have won so many prizes, what does it mean to you to receive the Career Achievement Award from the HT2FF?
It is always great to receive accolades; it doesn’t get old. Documentary filmmakers don’t get recognition every day. It’s not like we go to a restaurant
and everyone falls all over us. To be recognized because people are seeing and liking my films is great and the award means this is happening.
In addition to receiving the MacArthur Genius Award, your company, Firelight Media, won the 2015 MacArthur Award. How has that helped you?
My personal award sent my three kids to school and sustained me as a filmmaker. The Award to Firelight Media will help sustain the Lab mentoring filmmakers
of color making their first and second films. One of the things that is essential to me as a filmmaker is to try to give the viewer a sense of what it has
meant to be black in America and consider this within our contemporary context.
Nelson has directed and produced such acclaimed work as “The Murder Of Emmett Till” an eye-opening film which reveals so much beyond what the headlines of
the times told us, the public. His other stirring docs include “Freedom Riders” (his personal favorite) and “Jonestown: The Life And Death Of People’s
In 2014, “Freedom Summer” presented an astounding history of what led up to the Black Power Movement. When it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, the
audience was stunned at how he put into context the 1964 voter registration drive in Mississippi, the surprising truth of the Chicago Democratic Convention
and the Mississippi delegation and how the turn of events led to the Black Power Movement and to the Voting Rights Act.
The delegation never got the chance to speak from the floor. Many then said, “We can’t keep being the good soldier and following the rules when we can’t do
our best.” Some moved into action, some dropped out. They thought, “If we just ‘show’ you the wrongs, the injustice, police with dogs and fire-hoses and show
you that we’re non-violent, you can’t help but support us.” But the Democratic National Convention failed them, and the young had to do something new.
The last image in “Freedom Summer” you see Stokely Carmichael saying “We want Black Power”. In the opening of your most recent film, “The Black Panthers:
Vanguard Of The Revolution” he is also chanting “We want Black Power” which gives a continuity to the two films. Tell me a bit about what prompted you to
tell this story?
I felt it was a little known story, that hadn’t been told in its entirety. In particular, I wanted to offer a unique and engaging opportunity to examine a
very complex moment in time that challenges the cold, oversimplified narrative of a Panther who is prone to violence and consumed with anger. Thoroughly
examining the history of the Black Panther Party allowed me to sift through the fragmented perceptions and find the core driver of the movement: the Black
Panther Party emerged out of a love for their people, and a devotion to empowering them. This compelled me to communicate the story fully and accurately.
And for the release in August of the film, I attended every opening in 20 cities nationwide, along with former Black Panthers, scholars and photographers.
How did you get started in filmmaking?
I thought I wanted to make fiction features but I stumbled into Bill Greaves and got into documentary filmmaking with him and never looked back.
If someone offered me a million dollars to make a fiction project I think I would. But I know how you have to jump through hoops to make a feature and that
pain would be difficult. I don’t have a particular idea or a script and that is hardest part of fiction; how to get a great script, cast, funding. Docs are
known at least…
What films inspired you?
“Eyes on the Prize”. It was the first time we saw a series on African Americans. It got so much attention worldwide. It opened eyes to the African American
history and it was fascinating to everyone. And it inspired a whole generation of African American filmmakers.
Do you have a sense of Mission in your filmmaking?
This morning I was interviewing an assistant editor and said to him, “We are on a mission here”; getting ahead in a career is ok, but here we are on a
We have a history we’ve been fortunate to be able to tell. I see my ancestors on my shoulder saying “Don’t screw up”.
We are also on a mission to tell good stories and to entertain people. I hope our films move people to action one way or the other. Many of our films
lately are about young people who are making changes.
Did your parents raise you with social awareness or activism?
They were very politically minded and we talked about politics all the time around the dinner table. We were raised to be aware. I remember when I was 15
or 16 when the Panthers started, I would come home and turn on TV and see fire-hoses and dogs attacking people. These images politicized everyone. Just
like today with Black Lives Matter and the police killings, everyone has to think about what they’re seeing. In the 60s it was sustained. Viet Nam also
politicized everybody. You were either going to go or you had to figure out how not to go. It affected everyone.
What do you make of the police violence against black lives today?
The blatant activities of the police that all people, black and white, are seeing and talking about is bringing awareness to the years and years of
injustices. Black Lives Matters is similar to how Black Panthers began. We have to be responsible for our own communities.
Nelson is currently in production on “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story Of Historically Black Colleges And Universities”, which is the second in a series
of three films Nelson will direct as part of a new multi-platform PBS series entitled America Revisited. He is also exec producing “ Free for All: Inside the Public Library”.
For more information or to buy tickets, please go to ht2ff.com