Filmmaker Stanley Nelson visits TSU to screen new documentary

Posted on Thursday, January 25, 2018

TSU News

Tell Them We Are Rising details the history of HBCUs in America (l-r) Melanie Lawson, Dr. Thomas Freeman, Stanley Nelson, TSU President Austin Lane, Dr. Kenyatta Cavil and Corbrin Burton

Stanley Nelson, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, visited Texas Southern as part of his HBCU tour to promote his new film, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities. TSU and KTSU sponsored a screening and panel discussion on August 12 in Sawyer Auditorium. The panel featured Nelson, Dr. Austin Lane, Professor Emeritus Dr. Thomas Freeman and SGA President Corbrin Burton.

Nelson sat down with University Advancement staff for a brief interview before the screening.

Q – Why did you decide to do this particular documentary at this particular time?

Nelson –It took us almost eight years to get the documentary done. It took five years to write the proposals, get the script together, raise the money and get the script into production. So, ‘this particular time’ was like, eight years ago. It took a while to get it done. This is a film that is what they call ‘evergreen,’ a film you could have made 20 years ago or could make 20 years from now, it’s always going to be relevant. It’s a historical story. Where we are in this country today, especially racially, it takes on more relevance than eight years ago if we had finished it (then). Now, we’re in a time where we feels like we’ve had cold water thrown in our face. We’re looking at race and in a different place that we thought we were, so there’s a lot of introspection on both black and white folks in this country – ‘okay, like where are we really and what’s going on and how did we get here?’

This film tells a story, in part, of how we got here. I think it also tells where we can go in the future, that’s the other part of it. The simple answer to ‘why’ is my mother and father both went to HBCUs. My mother went to Talladega and my father went to Howard, and it changed their lives. There was no way that they were going to go to college at a majority-white institution in the 1930s. My father was one of those guys who would have never gone to college if he hadn’t gone to Howard. He lived in Washington, D.C. and it (Howard) was right there and afforded him the opportunity to go to college. Howard nurtured him, they (professors) told him, ‘You’re smart, stop fooling around, you can do this.’ And that nurturing is what HBCUs have provided, have always provided. It changed his life and changed my life, that's why I’m sitting here talking about it. His life as filmmaker, without him going to Howard, I probably wouldn’t have had the life that I have now.

Q – What is the biggest takeaway that you had in the making of the documentary? Was there something in the process that you learned that you didn’t know before?

Nelson – Well, the film is a 150-year history of black colleges. And one of things we wanted to do was tell American history, the story of the last 150 years of American history through the story of HBCUs. There’s so much that I learned in making the film, and one of the things we wanted to always hold on to was the importance that HBCUs have had in creating the Black middle class in this country. The Black middle class has had great influence in the significant social changes we have had in this country, that’s what HBCUs have been and that’s who they are, that’s kind of a through line in the film.

Q – Have you noticed a larger migration in reverse? In the 1970s, there was a large migration to PWIs (predominately white institutions) or white universities, so have you seen a migration back to the HBCU experience?

Nelson – I think in the last couple of years, there has been a trend where there has been an uptick in applications. They call it the ‘Missouri effect’* and other things, but there is a desire for young African-Americans who want to have a safe, intellectual space. Someone says in the film, (it’s important) to have four years of your life where race is not your primary concern. Where the first thing is you’re not seen (just) as ‘a black person,’ and for so many young people, they’re saying, “give me four years of peace” and let me escape from that so that I can go back out into the world of America and fight that battle. Just let me have four years.

Also, more than ever, we need that safe, intellectual place that we have at HBCUs. One thing someone says in the film that the sit-in movement at North Carolina AT&T would have never gotten started at Harvard or Yale, it just never would. And so we need that, we need that space where young African-Americans are sitting around talking about change and what we want the world to look like as they reach their adulthood and how they can change the world they live in. It’s more important now more than ever.

Q – What should HBCUs be doing now that perhaps we have not been doing in the last ten years?

Nelson – It’s important that HBCUs as institutions give young people that platform to talk and to think about where to go, and then, get out of their way. One thing we talk about a little bit in the film is there have been times in the history of HBCUs when the administrations have kind of wanted to hold the students back – ‘don’t go on the Freedom Ride, don’t sit in, don’t go on the Black Lives Matter march, stay here and do your work and be cool.’ But I think that one of the things that’s important is that the administration help the students because that’s what HBCUs are for. You have to protect the students and that’s really important, we understand that (because) one of the things that administrations have to do is make sure that the students are safe. But beyond that, I think that it’s really important that they understand that’s what young people do and what we need young people to do is to talk about change and help fight for change in this country.

Q – What would you tell student filmmakers who are at an HBCU? Do you have any particular advice? You’ve done documentaries on the Black Panthers and the Black press and so on, so where do you think is the dynamic for student filmmakers?

Nelson – I think the thing is to study film and understand that you can be the best that you can be and be great, but you have to study and there’s no excuses. At an HBCU, they have everything that you need to become a great filmmaker, the rest is on you. A lot of times, we as filmmakers want to complain, ‘well, we don’t have the equipment, we don’t have this, we don’t have that,’ but you can do it! At Howard University, (Professor) Haile Gerima has turned out a contingent of Black cinematographers. He has just done it, so you can do it! But you have to be very serious about filmmaking and love filmmaking. You can’t love what you think is all the perks of filmmaking, getting on that stage and getting the award, that’s not what filmmaking is about.

You know, my life is lived in crappy hotel rooms and the edit room, but I love making films, I love the process of making films. And if you love that, then study it. Look at films, watch films, make films. If other students in your class or in your department are making films, then go out with them. I was the guy who volunteered on everybody’s film – ‘oh, you’re going out to shoot on Saturday morning at 6 in the morning? Fine, you need somebody to carry the lights? I’ll go. You need somebody to set up the lights? You need somebody to carry those cases, okay, I’ll carry the cases.’ I just wanted to be around it and any experience that I ever had in film I could always honestly say that I learned something, just to be around it. If don’t like waking up at 6 o’clock, you need to be doing something else. That’s what college is all about, find something else that you want to do because if you don’t like it now, you’re not going to like it in five years, you’re not going to like it in ten years. That’s what college is all about, trying to find what it is that you really like to do, because for 99.9 percent of people in the world, it’s hard to be good at something you don’t like.

Q – Now that you’re on this tour, do you have anything in hopper? What’s next?

Nelson – We are actually working on a film about Miles Davis. We just half-shot it, we’re in the edit room, and we’re working on another huge project on the Atlantic Slave Trade and the business of slavery. Slavery was the first huge, international business – a global business that involved Europe and Africa, the New World. We’re very excited about that project, it’s just getting kicked off the ground.

It’s really an exciting time for documentary film. A lot of money – the Netflix effect – a lot of money is being poured into documentary films, not only by Netflix, but by ESPN and HBO, Hulu and Amazon, Apple TV is getting in (there), so there’s a lot of stuff going on in documentary film. And the main thing for students is that you’re ready. We can all talk a good game, but there’s nothing that says that you can’t go…one thing that I always wanted to see was is these great Black cameramen out of nowhere…camerawomen, camera people, I’m sorry (laughter) coming out of nowhere. Why can’t they? You can take a still camera and shoot video, learn how to light, learn how to go shoot and be great. Learn on your own, experiment with it and stuff like that.

African-Americans are the largest consumers per capita of media in the world. We’ve got to be stimulated. (laughter) We’ve got to be stimulated at all times. Me? I have to have music on at all times, soon as I walk in the door, I have music on until I turn off the lights. We see video, we see films. It’s not that big of a jump. You’ve consumed so many films, you know what looks good, you know how it’s supposed to be, you know how music is supposed to go, you know what you like, just do that. We need to analyze media. Why do we like this film? You watch “I Am Not Your Negro,” “13th,” why did I like that film? What was it about that film that made me interested? A lot of people don’t know that last year, four of the five films that were nominated for Academy Awards in documentary film were directed by African Americans. We never had anything like that before. Four of the five documentary films. You make films, you’re Black, take a look at those four, that’s the place to start. And if you’re not that interested, it means that you probably should be doing something else. When I went to film school that was the difference for me. I loved it, I was like “oh, all I’ve got to do is watch movies? Bring it on!” I was like Brer Rabbit. Teacher assigned me to watch three movies and I was like “oh, no, don’t make me watch three movies!” (laughter) It’s important that you have to find something you love.

NOTE: The Missouri effect is a recent trend of African-American students making an effort to attend HBCUs after a rise in racially-charged incidents at predominately white universities, including a major student protest at the University of Missouri in 2016.

Tell Them We Are Risingwill air nationally on the acclaimed PBS series, Independent Lens on Monday, February 19 at 8 p.m. on Houston Public Media (KUHT-Channel 8).

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Last updated: 09/25/2018