Since the early ’90s, award-winning director and producer Stanley Nelson Jr. has highlighted the experiences and historical moments of African Americans through his documentary films. He is most known for films like Freedom Riders, Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple, The Murder of Emmit Till and Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise your Voice. Currently, Nelson serves as co-founder and executive director of Firelight Media, a nonprofit offering technical training skills and professional backing to upcoming filmmakers; and is the co-founder of Firelight Films, the for-profit documentary production company.
Through Nelson’s vivid storytelling, he has drawn attention to hundreds of key figures in the African America community. The Civil Rights Movement was the core of his foundation for creating films. Today, Nelson chooses to shed light on the leadership of U.S. Congressman John Lewis of Georgia. Rolling out spoke to Nelson to discuss his newest work. He also shares advice for emerging producers and directors trying to break into the business.
Why did you decide to direct John Lewis’ documentary?
I have always found Rep. John Lewis’ life story and his leadership during the civil rights era to be extremely inspiring. My filmography (Freedom Riders, Freedom Summer) covers the period of the congressman’s youth activism. This documentary will provide us the opportunity to understand that period from a personal perspective and the ways those early moments informed a lifetime of public service.
There are many documentaries about the civil rights era. What unique angle will you create?
A lot of times, young people can be dismissive of working “within the system.” I look forward to exploring the journey from youthful activism and passion to a career as a legislator.
How do you stay at the cutting edge of your craft?
As an artist, I am always learning and building on my skills and capabilities. I also have the unique benefit of mentoring emerging filmmakers of color via Firelight Media’s Documentary Lab. When you mentor, you also learn.
What keeps you inspired?
Ultimately, my source of inspiration stems from my dedication to social justice and informing people about the struggles and successes of individuals and movements.
For those considering entering this arena, what skill sets do you recommend mastering?
In today’s world, aspiring artists can get projects done by embracing a DIY ethos and hustle. A new director can pick up disciplines like editing, effects, animation or shoot on the latest affordable camera including a mobile phone. However, what remains constant is good storytelling, which is less of a learned skill and more cultivation of a unique point of view.