Sundance 2017 Filmmaker Interview: Stanley Nelson (Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities)

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‘Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities’ spans 170 years of American history.

The two-hour film and multi-platform project by award-winning documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson, explores the pivotal role HBCUs have played in the ascent of African-Americans and their families – from slavery to the present day. The film also examines the impact HBCUs have had on American history, culture, and national identity.

Before ‘Tell Them We Are Rising’ premieres on PBS in October 2017, we sat down with Stanley Nelson at the film’s Sundance Film Festival 2017 world premiere.

When we last spoke you were presenting your film ‘The Black Panthers: vanguard for the Revolution” at Sundance. Speaking as a creator, at what point during that film’s production and distribution were you developing this film? Or, had you always knew you would like to cover this subject matter in some way?
Tell Them We Are Rising was already in development during the world premiere of The Black Panthers is the second of a three-part series for PBS called America Revisited. The first installation was The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, and the third will be a film on the Atlantic slave trade. We knew this was a film that we would tackle, but faced some unexpected challenges in the early stages because The Black Panthers had a longer release and went to more theaters than we anticipated. We had to start production on Tell Them We Are Rising while we were still on the road promoting The Black Panthers.

For our readers who may not know, and I’m aware they will learn in the film, can you give a brief introduction to the institution of HBCUs? What was the first? Under what circumstances was it founded?
Although a few HBCUs had been founded in the North before the civil war, HBCUs nationally didn’t really develop as institutions until after the Civil War. During the few years following 1865 was when they really began to grow and flourish. They were founded out of necessity because even after slavery ended, African Americans were not allowed to have an education. There was a deep-seated belief that an education—and especially higher education—would change everything.

You mention your parents were both alumni of HBCUs, how do they fecal and reflect on their experiences on campus? How do they define the balance between traditional academics and the focus on awareness and social justice encouraged?
Both of my parents went to school in the 1930s, so for them HBCUs were the only choice they had for getting a higher education. During that period, HBCUs had some influence on social justice issues, but the focus had always been academics. Many of the social justice movements that rose out of HBCUs came from initiatives and demands led by the students, often with the encouragement of professors and in many cases the college itself.

What would you say the primary experiential difference is between, say, Howard University and Yale?
HBCUs are the only black intellectual space where black students are the majority. That context becomes very important, especially because one of the primary missions of HBCUs is to cultivate a rich and nurturing space for black students. This focus is one of the unique hallmarks that HBCUs pride themselves in.

Moving to the film, as a Director and Creative, how did you approach the narrative construction from concept to final product? Was there a clear vision, which stayed consistent throughout? Or, did you have to make certain changes and/or compromises/sacrifices to your original approach?
One thing I knew early on was I wanted to tell this through a series of stories. We knew we couldn’t include everything in the history of HBCUs or cover all the schools in 90 minutes, so we resolved to capture a series of stories that could give viewers an idea of what HBCUs represent then, now, and in the future. Our use of graphics in became richer and much more intricate on as went on. At the last moment we had decided not to finish the film with narration, which was big structural change, so some of the stories were kept while others were dropped to account for this.

How do you strategize a film such as this in a way to gain the widest, most diverse audience possible? In other words, how do you go about preventing it being viewed (and appreciated) solely by a like-minded audience?
We’re always looking to tell something new to a number of audiences at the same time. In the case of Tell Them We Are Rising, we knew the audience would range to include seniors who had gone to HBCU before Brown v. Board, to teenagers who may not have even heard the term HBCU. Overall, I try to tell stories that are new to the African American population. This isn’t just black history, it’s the history of the United States, and if those stories are entertaining and new to black communities, then they will likely be entertaining and new to everyone.

Speaking on Sundance, this will not be the first time you have presented a film there? How do you find the experience of Sundance as an event? As a destination for quality cinema?
Sundance is an incredible place to premiere a film. Not only do you have enthusiastic, sold out crowds, but the festival treats you well and offers the opportunity to launch your film into a high profile atmosphere. As filmmakers, we’re surrounded by the immense talent of our colleagues, and that drives me to push harder in my own craft. We were still in production when we got accepted, so that news it galvanized us with the realization that somebody really does get this film and see the value in it. That was really important for us.

How do you gauge the level of social awareness on site at Sundance? Do you find its tendency to activism to be organic?
I think that you generally have a crowd at Sundance that is left-leaning, and on top of that, this year everyone was galvanized by what’s happening in the country. You also have a crowd that is coming in to Park City to see something new and something that is relevant to their lives, so I do think that the activism that comes out of Sundance is genuine and organic.

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