Watching protesters fill the streets across the globe over the police killings of African Americans, I thought of the opening words of Freedom’s Journal, the first Black-owned and operated newspaper in the United States: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the publick been deceived by misinterpretations, in things which concern us dearly.”
These words were written in 1827, when most African Americans were enslaved, and most white Americans were fine with that. The Civil War was almost 40 years away, but the Black creators of Freedom’s Journal already imagined a different world and insisted on raising their own voices to bring it into being.
For over 30 years, I’ve been making documentary films on the African American experience, particularly misrepresented or forgotten histories, including about Marcus Garvey, the murder of Emmett Till, the Freedom Riders, Freedom Summer and the Black Panther Party. Spending time with the folks who lived this history made me keenly aware that those who have the power to tell the story create the meaning of that story.
The story shouting out at us today is one of national reckoning. The brutal killing of George Floyd may have ignited the protests. But it was the COVID-19 pandemic that re-arranged the firewood.
The pandemic doesn’t show how we were all in this together. Rather, it shows that everything is connected: how centuries of forced labor, Black Codes, Jim Crow and segregation, along with housing, economic and education inequality, have created a form of American apartheid that is playing out in who lives and who dies from the coronavirus.
The cultural uprising now underway is the result of decades of Black people telling their stories. But we’re not there yet. The stories documentarians and journalists capture today — and that will emerge in the weeks and months ahead as definitive narratives — will not only shape how we remember this extraordinary period but also how future generations come to understand it. It is therefore critical that African Americans and other people of color who are at the center of this revolution tell the stories.
It is not a foregone conclusion that they will be able to do so.
The industry most responsible for telling America’s stories, to the country and the world, is lagging behind. No American institution has perpetuated our racial hierarchy, racist attitudes, and myths that twist the truth of our history more than film and television. Halting production of the show “Cops” and adding context to broadcasts of “Gone with the Wind” are necessary but not sufficient. The industry, even the corner focused on documentaries, must more boldly take on the transformation that this moment demands.
I am one of the fortunate few Black documentary filmmakers who has received the support to build a career. That said, it took me six years to raise the funds for a film about the Black press. And each new film is a challenge to finance. Just this year, my film company started seeking funding for a film on the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, now famous because of President Trump’s visit to Tulsa, originally planned on Juneteenth. Until recent events, we were told repeatedly by funding and production executives that they had never heard of it, that it was too unknown to have appeal. As everyone now recognizes, the Tulsa massacre is foundational to the African American experience in the 20th century.
In the documentary field, as in many others, decision-making is shrouded in secrecy, access is governed by close personal relationships and principal gatekeepers with the power to make or break careers are nearly all white. For many of the more than 100 filmmakers we’ve supported at Firelight Media Documentary Lab over the last decade, even winning the top awards in our field is not enough to break through.
It’s time that film distribution companies, financiers and film festivals made a commitment to transformation of their leadership. White directors and producers who want to tell stories about people of color should instead help a filmmaker of color to tell that story. Production companies and sales agents who leverage long-standing industry relationships should examine how their practices marginalize filmmakers and audiences of color.
Most importantly, the industry must move resources to filmmakers of color to tell the stories we all need to hear. Stories by and about Black, Indigenous and people of color are woefully lacking financial support, in part because the businesses that market, distribute and broadcast films in the United States have shown scant interest in reaching this demographic and little if any confidence that larger audiences would watch their stories.
Perhaps, had funding been available, along with more support for filmmakers of color, stories that we recognize as valuable and just good stories — from slavery and emancipation to reconstruction and so much more — would have gained popular acclaim, helping to transform how we think of our larger history.
We need to create a funding stream now to ensure that this moment produces a new body of work, shaping how we cover what is happening and what has happened throughout our history.
As with other industries, the economic fallout from COVID-19 has made it particularly hard for filmmakers of color, most of whom were already struggling. The confluence of the pandemic and the racial and cultural reckoning does not guarantee that we will come out of this in a different place. Our industry has had a tendency to turn to “sure things” in times of crisis, finding solace in a nostalgic normal that perpetuates the white status quo.
Like the founders of Freedom’s Journal, today’s filmmakers know that those who tell the story wield the power. The stories and filmmakers we choose to support will determine whether we create a fuller, more accurate narrative of our country, one that will help us bring the future we all want into being.
Stanley Nelson is a filmmaker whose work focuses on African American history and culture. He is also the founder of the Firelight Media Documentary Lab, which mentors and supports filmmakers of color.