The moment Stanley Nelson Jr. walked into room 338 of the Farrison-Newton Communications Building, the eyes of N.C. Central University students and faculty alike were glowing with excitement.
Nelson, an award-winning American documentarian, director, and multimedia producer came to NCCU last Thursday to promote and screen his upcoming film “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities,” which features footage from NCCU’s May 2017 commencement ceremonies alongside other HBCUs across the nation.
The documentary, the second in a three-part series called America Rising and centerpiece of a yearlong multi-platform effort called HBCU Rising, “examines the impact Historically-Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have had on American history, culture, and national identity.”
Nelson told those gathered in the classroom that it took 5 years just to raise the money for the film from organizations like the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and 2 additional years to complete filming before the editing process even began.
However, some of the archival footage rang much harder home in the current political climate.
On Nov. 16, 1972, Southern University students Leonard Brown and Denver Smith were shot and killed outside of the Old Auditorium on the university’s Baton Rouge, La. campus. Their deaths were due in part to rising tensions between student activism groups and the administration, who brought in the National Guard to try and quell the students’ protests.
“It’s a story that most people don’t know,” Nelson said. “What happened is that we found actual footage of these two students getting killed — you actually see them get shot on camera.”
When asked why he chose to pursue a career in film, Nelson told his audience that he first went to college to avoid the Vietnam War draft in 1969. Once he began attending, he realized that he had no idea what he wanted to do. That didn’t stop him from getting what he wanted.
“I knew I wanted to do something artistic, and then I started going into film (classes),” Nelson explained. “I ended up liking it.”
From there, Nelson attained an apprenticeship with documentarian William Greaves before transitioning into a production role at PBS for the TV series “Listening to America.” His first award-winning solo film credits include the 2000 documentary “Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind,” which won first place overall winner at the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 2001 and best documentary at the 2002 Black International Cinema Awards.
While those in attendance didn’t view “Tell Them We Are Rising” that afternoon, they were invited to a 6 p.m. screening that evening in the H.M. Michaux Jr. School of Education auditorium where Nelson answered similar questions following the film.
The documentary will air nationally on the acclaimed PBS series Independent Lens on Feb. 19.
Further information about the documentary can be found at the HBCU Rising website. The first installment in the America Rising series, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” is available for streaming on Netflix.
Story by Kaylee Sciacca with contributions by Natasha Berrios Laguerre.