Filmmaker Stanley Nelson

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The veteran filmmaker previews his latest project, Freedom Summer, which chronicles a period in the civil rights movement that radically changed the U.S.

Award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson has decades of experience in writing, directing and producing documentaries. He's a MacArthur "genius" Fellow who uses compelling narratives to bring important but forgotten history to the small screen. Co-founder and executive director of Firelight Media, a nonprofit production company that provides technical education and professional support to emerging documentarians, he's made several productions for PBS and for the Smithsonian Institution and taught film at Howard University. Nelson's latest project is Freedom Summer—a reminder that the civil rights movement was more complex than most people realize.


Tavis: We continue our look at Freedom Summer with award-winning documentary filmmaker, Stanley Nelson, who has three Emmys to his credit as well as a MacArthur Genius grant.

His film about those 10 weeks skillfully combines contemporary interviews with archival footage and will air on PBS on June 24 as part of the series, “American Experience.” Let’s take a look at a scene from “Freedom Summer.”


Tavis: So how do you situate this project in the pantheon of all your majestic work?

Stanley Nelson: You know, when I started making films, I never thought I had any kind of, you know, real focus, but it’s kind of turned out that way. And I’ve done a number of films on the civil rights movement. We just did “Freedom Riders” a few years ago. You know, “Freedom Summer” is kind of the natural flow out of “Freedom Riders.”

Tavis: What do you think has been the magnetic draw for you to this particular subject matter, given your earlier point that you didn’t expect this was the route you’d be taking as a filmmaker necessarily?

Nelson: You know, that’s a question that kind of has a number of parts. You know, one, the civil rights movement obviously is just so dramatic. It changed the country. You know, two, so many of the people involved in the civil rights movement were so young. So now, 50 years later, they’re still around alive and still vibrant in their great interviews.

And as a filmmaker, the footage is just so great. You know, the footage just looks wonderful and there’s so much footage that people haven’t seen. So, you know, you combine all those things and it just really makes a nice kind of emotional film.

Tavis: This is a question that is unfair to ask a filmmaker, but let me ask anyway ’cause it’s such a huge question to unpack.

But given the people that you’ve had a chance to talk to for the work that you’ve done around the civil rights era and, again, to your point, because so many of them are still living, so many of them, particularly in this project, were so young.

Give me your sense of the people. I don’t know that there’s a profile here or a portrait that you can paint and I don’t want to color the question too much. But just tell me about these people, these remarkable people, you’ve had access to.

Nelson: I mean, the people are just amazing, you know, because they risked their lives. They really did risk their lives to change our country. And for so many of them, you know, it wasn’t personal.

So you have in Freedom Summer, the white kids who came down there, many of them from the north, you know, who in some ways you could say, “Well, what did they have to gain?” You know, Bob Moses was from New York. What did he have to gain?

I mean, just this incredible, incredible bravery. And one of the things that’s really funny to me is when we interviewed them for the film, you know, we always ask, “So why did you do it?” You know, what made you do it?

And we never get a good answer. You know, it’s always like, “I just saw a wrong and I had to make it right.” Or “I just felt I had to do it.” It’s not something that you can like hold onto that’s tangible, that makes them make this commitment. And in a way, that’s what’s so beautiful about it.

Tavis: Do we know why young folk today are not doing it? Can you compare in contrast the generations?

Nelson: Yeah. I mean, ’cause that’s a question that we get a lot, you know, at screenings. You know, people say, “What about young people? They don’t seem to be involved.” And I think it’s just much more complicated. I think young people really want to be involved. I think, you know, young people know that something’s wrong, but it’s not as simple.

You know, this was, okay, we’re going to get on a bus and do Freedom Rides or we’re going to go down south for Freedom Summer because people down there don’t have the right to vote. It was much simpler, I think, the problems. Now it’s much more complicated.

The other thing I think is so many young people could join a movement and we don’t have a movement now, you know. So they could say, oh, they’re going down for Freedom Summer. Let me join.

You know, now we’re saying, “You know, you should just kind of start a movement.” So I think, you know, once young people have a movement, something that they can join, I think they will.

Tavis: Let me respectfully – I do this with all the love in my heart – push back on you for the sake of a good conversation, I hope, push back on both of those points. One, I’m not so sure that I’m convinced – and maybe you can disabuse me of my notion. I’m not convinced of your point that it is much more complicated, that it’s more complex.

I don’t know that the distinct difference between what is right and what is wrong, between what a society ought to accept and what it ought not, between the kind of nation that we profess to be and the kind of nation that we really are, I don’t know that that has to be – I don’t know why that’s more complicated for this particular generation.

When you say it was simpler, I mean, I accept the definition simply in the sense that you could see in front of you, you know, coloreds only and whites only and you can’t vote and you can’t do this and you can’t do that. So if you mean simple in that context, then I understand it.

But how much more complex does right versus wrong need to be and why can’t people see that even in this era on climate change, on global warming, on immigration? I mean, why is it more complicated to your mind?

Nelson: Well, I think that is just those nuts and bolts. It’s, okay, we want to do away with segregated bathrooms. We want to do away with people not being able to vote in Mississippi. You know, now it’s, okay, so what do we want to do? What do we want to do?

You know, we want to make the government move on climate change? Well, that’s a little bit more complicated. So what do you do? And I do think it’s this lack of this movement to join. I think that those things combined make it more complicated.

Tavis: So the second thing I push back on is this notion of a movement to join. There never is a movement to join, Stanley. Moments happen, momentum is created, a movement comes out of it. Moment, momentum and movement.

So when you say a movement to join, these young folk didn’t join a movement. They created a movement. They took the momentum of the era. This was their movement. They didn’t have nothing to join. They did it.

Nelson: Right, but for an individual, each individual could kind of join the movement. So to give you an example, I grew up, you know, kind of a little bit later than this movement. But during the Vietnam protests, you know, the Vietnam War protests, well, I remember Friday, you know, at school.

We’d be talking about what are you gonna do this weekend and a bunch of the beautiful women would say, “I’m gonna go and be on this protest down Fifth Avenue.” I’d be like, “So am I.” [Laugh] You know, I’m gonna do that too.

You know, it was very simple. We’re gonna make that choice, you know. And that’s the kind of thing I think that I’m talking about when I say, you know, we just need a movement that makes it easier to join. Everybody’s not a leader. Everybody is not. I wasn’t a leader, but I was a joiner.

Tavis: Right. I think what troubles me is that we live in an era now where we perhaps even unwittingly deify these young people. They were courageous, no doubt about it.

But I worry that we deify them in such a way that young people today don’t think they can appropriate that same kind of courage and conviction and commitment. So it becomes a rather self-fulfilling prophesy. Does that make sense?

Nelson: Yeah, sure, sure. Let me just say a couple of things to that because I think one of the things that is important about this film and about my work in general is one of the things I’ve tried to do is talk about, you know, the common people. So it’s not about Martin Luther King or even Bob Moses. You know, you don’t have to be that person.

So, you know, there’s 700 or 800 volunteers who go down to Freedom Summer. They’re the people of Mississippi who are real heroes who let the Freedom Summer volunteers stay in their houses and then have to stay there when they’re gone and all the coverage is gone. So there’s those kind of people. So I think that’s really important.

Tavis: What do you make of the fact, Stanley, that 50 years later, these voting rights issues – you know where I’m going with this question, obviously.

Nelson: Yeah.

Tavis: I mean, how is it possible that we are back to debating some of these same issues of voting rights?

Nelson: One of the things that’s happened for me in making a number of historical films is I’ve really seen the fact that, you know, our history, especially our history as African Americans, is not this ascendency. You know, we want it to be, you know, this ascendency from slavery, but it’s not.

You know, change happens when we push back, when we push for change. And part, I think, you know – and we can argue this. Part of, I think, our psychology as African Americans is we want to say, okay, now we’ve done it.

You know, we’ve gotten there. Finally we’ve gotten to the mountaintop, but we never get there. We’ll never get there. So it’s really important that we keep pushing. And when we stop, things roll back down the hill.

Tavis: Let me close by asking whether or not there is a debt you think that we owe to this particular generation that you bring to light in this film. And if we owe them a debt, have we paid the debt as a nation that we owe to these Freedom warriors?

Nelson: Let me just, if I can, Tavis, just put that in a very personal way. I know I owe a debt to these people. You know, I’ve done a number of screenings of Freedom Summer around the country and we’ll have some of the volunteers on with us.

And every time, I get teared up. I feel like a fool for getting teared up over and over again, but I say, you know, I would never be here on this stage as an African American producer-director without you.

When I was growing up in the 60s and 50s, there was nothing such as an African American director of film. That did not exist and it only exists now because of the bravery of the people in Freedom Summer and in the civil rights movement.

Tavis: Stanley Nelson is a brilliant, brilliant filmmaker and he’s done it once again with a project called “Freedom Summer” airing on these PBS stations on June 24 as part of “American Experience.” You will not want to miss this or any of the work, for that matter, ever done by Stanley Nelson. Stanley, congratulations. I’m glad you did this, man.

Nelson: Well, thank you so much.

Tavis: Good to have you back on this program.

Nelson: It’s my pleasure.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: June 20, 2014 at 3:07 pm