Stanley Nelson was “bouncing around in college,” trying to figure out what he wanted to do in life, when he realized that he “didn’t want a job wearing a suit and tie, carrying a briefcase.”
“I wanted something with a learning curve that was never-ending,” he recalled.
So New York native Nelson, 60, the subject of this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival tribute, decided to become a filmmaker. And after seeing the 1971 feature “The Murder of Fred Hampton,” about the killing of a Black Panther leader by members of the Chicago police, he was inspired to become a documentary filmmaker, specializing in work about the African-American community.
“I liked that I was affected by (the Hampton) film,” he said. “It was different from what I had known about documentaries, the films they brought into your school class that were boring. This was telling stories that were true to life.”
The 15th annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, held in Durham’s Carolina Theatre and other venues, is Thursday through Sunday. The festival, sponsored by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, features more than 100 films, discussions and panels.
Nelson, winner of a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant in 2002, is being honored for the lasting impact of his body of work.
“His films are traditional in the best sense of the word,” said Sadie Tillery, Full Frame’s programming director. “They deal with historical events in a profound way. They screen as effectively on TV as they do theatrically. They remind us about past events, and can tell us as much about the present.”
Nelson has made films about the murder of Emmitt Till, the civil rights era Freedom Riders, the all-female singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock, the Jonestown massacre, and he recently wrote and produced a documentary about iconic Olympic track and field star Jesse Owens. It will be the festival’s opening night presentation on Thursday.
“There’s an Olympics this summer, and this is a great story, a lot of what happened to Jesse after the (1936) Olympics we forget,” Nelson said of the Owens’ film. “He came back to this country, and he became for some time a tragic figure.”
Nelson has been lucky in his career associations. When he got out of school, he managed to land a job with Bill Greaves, a pioneering African-American documentary filmmaker (and an Emmy winner for the PBS show “Black Journal”). Then, he worked as a producer for journalist Bill Moyers, and has had a long-running relationship with PBS’ “American Experience” series.
A man who has always “loved the hands-on aspect of documentary filmmaking,” Nelson said “one of the great things about documentary film is there are always ways you can keep working, perfecting your craft. Making feature films, you might wait years to put together a project, but with documentaries you can start a project without a million dollars and stars.”
Still, there are aspects of his profession that Nelson isn’t enthused about – especially the scarcity of people of color going to film school these days.
“I don’t think this country has the will it did 25 years ago to make some kind of inclusiveness in film schools and film festivals,” he said, adding that when he started out, there were few African-American filmmakers, “So the idea was we need to tell our own stories. Today you see a lot more films about African-Americans by non-African-Americans, and in the industry that’s OK, but I find it to be problematic. You can tell a better story when you’re inside the culture than when you’re outside.”
Don’t get Nelson wrong. He’s not an angry guy. Although he suffers from the same anxieties about fundraising that every documentary filmmaker does – “It’s still beating on doors, taking meetings,” Nelson said – he’s humbled by the MacArthur grant, which he calls “validation that you didn’t apply for; it was bestowed on you from on high.”
And as far as his career is concerned, Nelson said he’s “happy with what I do, and what’s happened for me is beyond my wildest dreams.”