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Documentarian Stanley Nelson Showcases The Legacy Of Black Entrepreneurs

PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 25:  Director/writer/producer Stanley Nelson of "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution" poses for a portrait at the Village at the Lift Presented by McDonald's McCafe during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. (Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 25: Director/writer/producer Stanley Nelson of "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution" poses for a portrait at the Village at the Lift Presented by McDonald's McCafe during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. (Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

Documentarian Stanley Nelson has had more documentaries featured at the Sundance Film Festival than any other filmmaker — including “The Murder Of Emmett Till” (2003), “A Place of Our Own” (2004), “Freedom Riders” (2010) and “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” (2019). He’s also won three Emmy awards and a MacArthur “genius” grant, and received a National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama in 2013.

Kenneth Turan of The L.A. Times says despite these accolades over the last few decades, “if you asked the average festival visitor to identify Stanley Nelson, you’d likely draw a blank. Nelson has never been a flavor of the month, never been the focus of a cult of personality.” Here’s what else Turan wrote:

Taken as a whole, as the Sundance program accurately states, they make Nelson “one of the foremost chroniclers of the African American experience in nonfiction film today.” Not just thoroughly researched, Nelson’s films understand both the value of a gripping story and how to create one.

Nelson, 67, shrugs off his somewhat under-the-radar status. He’s not in the habit of seeing his films as a body of work, joking that that makes them sound like “they were all tied together, like the Marvel Universe.”

“I’m always amazed when people know these films existed, just recently are African American stories starting to be recognized as universal stories,” he adds.

Nelson’s latest documentary is called “Boss: The Black Experience in Business,” which premieres next Tuesday on PBS. It showcases the experiences of black business owners throughout history.

For Nelson, black entrepreneurship in America is close to home. His mother was the last president of the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Co., a famous early black enterprise that produced hair care products and cosmetics for black women.

One of his first documentaries was about the business — “Two Dollars and a Dream: The Story of Madam C.J. Walker” — which aired on PBS in 1987.

We speak with Nelson about black entrepreneurship and three decades of documentary filmmaking.

Show produced by Paige Osburn. Text by Kathryn Fink.

GUESTS

Stanley Nelson, Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker, “BOSS: The Black Experience in Business.” His other films include “Freedom Riders,” “Wounded Knee” and “Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool.” @StanleyNelson1

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