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Getting to Know Stanley Nelson

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How do you find your calling? Sometimes, it takes you by surprise. On Monday, Feb. 19, at 6:30 p.m., filmmaker Stanley Nelson joins Steve Barnes for a special edition of “Barnes and … A Conversation With” to share how he entered what’s proven to be an extraordinary documentary film career almost by chance and how his work has evolved. Ahead of the episode, read on to learn a bit about the director of PBS’ “Independent Lens — Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities.”

He’s a genius - and we’re not just saying that.

Stanley Nelson is a 2002 recipient of a MacArthur Fellows Program Fellowship, popularly known as a “MacArthur genius grant.” Awarded annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the the fellowships allow no applications are awarded not for past accomplishment but as an investment in “a person’s originality, insight and potential.”

In addition to this prestigious fellowship, Nelson has been honored with a a National Humanities Medal; has won every major award in broadcasting — including a Lifetime Peabody Award, a Lifetime Emmy Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Documentary Association; has received fellowships at the American Film Institute, the New York Foundation for the Arts and Columbia University; and served for three years on the selection panel for theFulbright Fellowship in Film.

The High-Achieving Nelson Family

Stanley Nelson’s parents, Stanley Nelson Sr. and A’lelia (Ransom) Nelson, were also exceptional in their own careers.

Dr. Stanley Earl Nelson Sr. was a dentist and pioneer in reconstructive dentistry who taught at New York University, in addition to being an active supporter of the civil rights movement.

A’lelia Nelson was the last president of the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company — a famous early black enterprise that produced hair care products and cosmetics for black women — as well as a librarian at City College of New York and acquisitions supervisor for the Library of Congress.

PBS Legacy

Since 1988, with the release of “Two Dollars and a Dream: The Story of Madam C.J. Walker,” Stanley Nelson has created broad range of extraordinary works in collaboration with PBS. Of the course of 30 years, Nelson’s work has ranged from production with Bill Moyers on “Listening to America” to more than 15 original documentaries including “American Experience: The Murder of Emmett Till,” “Freedom Riders,” “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple” and “Independent Lens - The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.”

Advocating for Social Change through Documentary

Stanley Nelson is well known for his films’ compelling narratives and successfully brining complicated stories into focus in a feature-length work. Yet, in addition to documenting history, Nelson seeks to do work that inspires change. While that may lay in finding new voices and witnesses to historical events, films don’t simply stop there: the best inspire action and change.

With documentaries that bring the past out of headlines and into the context of time, sometimes the films even impact the present.

In addition to inspiring audiences to become better acquainted with often overlooked parts of history, Nelson’s work bringing the testimony of new witnesses into his work for “American Experience: The Murder of Emmett Till” helped propel the U.S. Department of Justice to reopen the 1955 murder case in Mississippi.

His nonprofit production company, Firelight Media, also makes it a point to nurture the future of aspiring filmmakers. Firelight is dedicated to using historical film to advance contemporary social justice causes and mentoring, inspiring and training a new generation of diverse young filmmakers committed to advancing underrepresented stories.


Monday, Feb. 19, 2018

“Barnes and … A Conversation With Stanley Nelson,” 6:30 p.m.

“Independent Lens — Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities,” 8 p.m.


Stanley Nelson

“Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities”

“Independent Lens”