A Huge, Long, Crazy, Sad, Happy, Glorious History

An Interview with Filmmaker Stanley Nelson on the Opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

By Cori Brosnahan

Stanley Nelson on the road with American Experience in 2011, retracing the 1961 Freedom Rides. Photo by Christopher Churchill, Courtesy of WGBH

Stanley Nelson is a documentary filmmaker, whose work for American Experience includes The Murder of Emmett Till, Freedom Summer, and Freedom Riders. Today, Nelson is being honored with the News & Documentary Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Nelson and his colleagues at Firelight Media contributed 17 film pieces to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, opening September 24th in Washington D.C. American Experience spoke to him about his experience documenting African American history, and the significance of the newest institution on the Mall.

What does the opening of this museum mean to you?

I had a really strange experience because I almost begged them to let me work on the exhibits. I didn’t need to beg, but it was a real honor to work on the museum. After 50 years — who knows? My grandkids, great-grandkids might go there and see that stuff and think, that’s my grandpa’s work. It’s an incredibly beautiful space, and it’s an incredibly important space. So for me it was like a dream to be able to contribute in some small way to this museum.

This is a museum of African American history and culture. This is the culture that I grew up in. This is me. This is my history. And again, it’s going to be there for a long, long time. And not to say that documentary films aren’t going to be there for a long time, but if you want to know about Freedom Summer, you’ve got to pull it up, buy a DVD, tune in or something. This is different: You might just be walking through the museum — you could be anybody — and there it is. All of a sudden, you’re engaged by the exhibit that we contributed to on Emmett Till or women in the Civil Rights Movement. All of those things are there for people to see.

The museum has a huge responsibility: shaping the narrative of African American history. You’ve taken on a similar responsibility with your films. Does that weigh on you?

Yeah, I feel it constantly. I feel the weight of history, of ancestors, to try to tell these stories accurately. No one’s going to make another Freedom Riders film for years probably, if ever. You’ve got one shot. I feel like there’s a huge weight on me to tell these stories and tell these stories right. But at the same time, you’ve got to throw all that away and just do your best to tell a story that’s engaging and accurate, but that’s entertaining, too. I want people to come to me afterwards and say, “that was a good film, I really enjoyed it.” I always feel like if you watch a film that’s an hour-and-a-half or two hours, you’re going to learn something that you didn’t know. So the question isn’t, how do I teach people? The question is, how do I entertain and engage people, and get them caught up in this story?

Museum Director Lonnie Bunch has called the black experience “the quintessential American story.” How do you see the relationship between American history and African American history?

I think African American history is American history. We were brought here very early on. There are very few people who can trace their ancestry to the first British who came. We’ve been here as a people longer than almost everyone else and our experiences have been as varied as anyone else. We’ve gone from our experience being slaves to being the president of the United States, and everything else in between. It’s a huge, long, crazy, sad, happy, glorious history. I hope people see that and understand it. I especially hope that African Americans see it and embrace it, and understand the varied history that we have in this country.

Aaron Henry, chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation, reading from a document while seated before the Credentials Committee at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Photo by Warren K. Leffler, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Do you ever find any tension between those two identities — American and African American?

Not really, not most of the time. I think that we all are more than one thing — we’re white, we’re black, we’re male, we’re female, we’re young, we’re old, we’re sick, we’re healthy — we’re all more than one thing at once. Our trick a lot of times as African Americans is to figure out a balance and to figure out how we look at ourselves and confront ourselves on our own terms — not how someone else may want to classify us, but how we see our own selves. I think that’s what’s important.

What’s your dream for the museum? How would you like people to feel when they leave?

I would like people to be entertained by the museum. I would like the museum to make them cry. I would like the museum to make them smile. I’d like the museum to make them think about the long, long history of African American people in this country… and, no matter where you’re from, or what race you are, to get a sense of what it means to be African American in this country. I think for most African Americans, we look on that as a glorious experience.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

For more, visit the official American Experience Website