Monday, February 15, 2016

Making Choices: Excerpts of a Conversation with Filmmaker Stanley Nelson

MacArthur Award-winner Stanley Nelson’s most recent documentary, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, will air on on PBS’s Independent Lens on Tuesday, February 16, 2016, at 9 pm (check local listings). The film was written and directed by Stanley Nelson, produced by Nelson and Laurens Grant, and edited by Aljernon Tunsil.

I spoke with Stanley last year in preparation of the fourth edition of Documentary Storytelling: Creative Nonfiction on Screen, now available from Focal Press. Here are some excerpts of that conversation.

Panthers on parade at Free Huey rally in Defermery Park.
Photo: Stephen Shames  

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Part of good storytelling is making choices about what to include or not include. How do you make those choices while remaining truthful to your subject?

I think the first thing is that you have to draw limits on when the story begins and ends. Sometimes it happens on paper before we start. Sometimes it happens in the edit room, and those are sometimes the hardest decisions to make.

In Freedom Riders [a film about the 1961 Freedom Rides, available on PBS], we wanted to do a long piece about nonviolence and the legacy of nonviolence as it comes down from Gandhi and goes into the movement. When we did interviews, we talked to people about how they were influenced by Gandhi and the Indian struggle. Gandhi had said that the true test of nonviolent civil disobedience would be in the United States, because African Americans were the minority [rather than the majority, as in India]. So how do you change things if you’re a minority? 

But as we got into the film—and so many times this happens—as we got into the editing, a lot of the background stuff had to fall by the wayside because we’ve got to get into the story. You don’t want to start the story in India in 1947 or something. And it’s hard, once you get into the story, to get back and talk about those things. It’s much easier to do in a book. You can always write another chapter in a book.

So a lot of times, the first thing you have to do is say, “Okay, what are the parameters of the story?” And look, in some ways we’re making those up. The BlackPanthers could have gone on to 1982 or so, when the Panthers actually disintegrate... We had thought about starting the film out with a guy named Robert Williams, an African American who advocated defending yourself with guns. Or we had a whole piece on the Watts riots, or Watts rebellion. Then once we got into cutting, we just couldn’t do it. So one of the first decisions is: Where does the story begin and where does it end? That’s really central to how these stories are told.

And then within the film, there are different sequences, obviously. We want a sequence, as much as possible, to lead to something else.

…I describe sequences as chapters. They’re unique in themselves, and then they advance the overall story.

Right. That’s what they do. You really want them to advance the story, or else it’s just kind of there. And I think as an audience you might not, in your mind, connect and say, “Wow, that was a nice story but it didn’t really go anywhere,” but part of you does feel that. You really want each sequence to push the whole forward. 

In the Black Panther film, we look at the LA shootout [an early-morning police raid on Panther headquarters in Los Angeles, December 8, 1969]. There are a lot of different shootouts, but we picked the LA shootout to use because there’s a lot of video—it lasted for five hours, and the press had a chance to get there, and for whatever reason, the police let them get close enough to film it—and it’s a very important shootout. But we could have done others.

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For more information about Stanley Nelson and his company, go to
For more information on Documentary Storytelling, 4th editiongo to

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