Stanley Nelson began his career in filmmaking apprenticing for the legendary documentarian William Greaves. "Bill gave me my first job when I was straight out of film school," he says now. "I learned so much because Bill just threw me onto the set in the middle of a production." Nelson began working on sound — which he'd studied in film school — before he was eventually asked to edit, too.
"A major thing I observed working with Bill is that he was supporting his family by making films as an independent filmmaker," he reflects. "That was not something I would have known was possible for a Black man until I saw Bill doing it."
In the decades since, Nelson has become the foremost chronicler of the Black experience in the 20th century. He is a MacArthur "Genius," a Peabody winner, and in 2013, President Barack Obama presented the filmmaker with the National Medal in the Humanities. In 2022, Nelson received his first Oscar nomination for Attica, a documentary about the 1971 prison uprising.
His new documentary is Sound of the Police, co-directed by Valerie Scoon, which examines the relationship between communities of color and law enforcement. "I knew I wanted to make a film that is set in the present but has a long, historical view of how we got here in terms of the current state of policing." In some ways, then, the film is a continuation of the work Nelson began with Attica.
"Attica and Sound of the Police walk a similar tightrope because, in some ways, they're both about violence, and you have to have the audience understand that violence without going overboard. You don't want the audience to get pissed off at you, like, 'Why did you make me watch this?'" explains the filmmaker. "Something I learned from Attica that I brought into my process for this film is to show the film to a few people and to ask, 'Is this too much? Is this enough?' Because sometimes, when you're working on difficult material, you become desensitized and can lose that perspective."
Sound of the Police arrives more than 30 years after Nelson's directorial debut, 1989's Two Dollars and A Dream: The Story of Madame C.J. Walker. Still, Nelson says he continues to learn more about filmmaking with each project. "I try to take lessons from each previous film into my next film so that I'm constantly evolving. And I always study new films... Whether I'm seeing the work of an emerging filmmaker or someone who's been in this game a long time, I always take lessons from their films in terms of what can be done in a documentary."
"You know, my father was a dentist — an exceptional dentist. I mean, he really transformed people's lives with his work. But when he turned 50, he said he had learned all he could ever learn about dentistry, and so he retired at age 55," he muses. "What I love about filmmaking is that you can never know everything. There's always something new to learn."
Below, Nelson shares with A.frame five of the films that have taught him the most.
Directed by: Howard Alk
The first time I saw The Murder of Fred Hampton was when it was playing in one of those dollar theaters they used to have in New York, where they would play second and third-run movies and charge $1 for admission. I was so impressed with the film, because it had a real point of view. It wasn't trying to tell one side and then the other — it had its own point of view, and it made no mistake about it. It was political, it was historical, and it inspired me for those reasons.
Created by: Henry Hampton
I saw Eyes on the Prize when it was first broadcast. It was so influential, because it was the first complete series that looked back on the whole Civil Rights Movement, and it also had African Americans directing and producing it. It was really the Civil Rights Movement from an African American point of view — even if that's now how it was publicized, that's what it was. Because until then, there were films that were made about us, but there weren't a lot of documentary films that were made by us.
Directed by: Raoul Peck
I was blown away by I Am Not Your Negro for its sheer inventiveness. When I saw the film, I felt like it was geared specifically to someone like me, who is open to being challenged by a documentary, but I wasn't sure how other audiences would respond. And then, lo and behold, everybody got it — and it was nominated for an Academy Award. It's a seminal film for so many people. I was amazed that this idiosyncratic film found a way to speak to everybody. That's a really hard thing to do.
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick | Written by: Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke
2001 is another film that blew me away when I first saw it. It was so different from everything else that had been made before it. It had such incredibly high production value. We forget that at this time, science fiction films were usually low-budget, cheesy movies — nothing like they are now. To see such a high-budget, well-made, experimental movie, it was something brand new and unforgettable.
Directed by: Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson
I just had the opportunity to see Going to Mars at the BlackStar Film Festival. It reminded me in some ways of I Am Not Your Negro. The film takes you on a journey and does things that are stylistically risky, yet it's been so well received. Audiences seem to really understand it. I Am Not Your Negro and Going To Mars are two films that I will insist my future collaborators study — these films open up new ways to create documentaries that don't rely on straightforward narratives.
I knew of Nikki Giovanni as an underground poet; I didn't think of her as part of this larger universe. But Joe and Michèle had a vision for this huge, sweeping universe of a film, and they tell the story in a way that I wouldn't have thought could work. But it does. It opened my eyes to a new way of approaching documentary filmmaking.