One of the first and most lasting impressions of Stanley Nelson’s documentaries is that the pageantry, faces, and forms in his stills, interviews, and found footage seem to be treasures reclaimed from an invisible America. His raconteurs are among invisible legions—articulate, impassioned, handsome, and African American—who seem to be unknown to journalists, or the standard expert-driven documentaries. So it is good news that the Museum of Modern Art is showing four Nelson films in February.
All of the films—The Murder of Emmett Till (2002), Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind (2001), The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords (1998), and The Story of Madame C.J. Walker and A’lelia Walker (1988)—journey in a world separate from anything in mainstream America today, and they illuminate eras when segregation was the law. The fact that these worlds are still unknown is one of the sad by-products of a cultural apartheid that continues. (Are black filmmakers’ works exhibited only during February?)
Though Nelson’s subjects could be narrowly viewed as significant individuals who struck blows against repressive conditions, his method is to reveal communities of ordinary people who made possible the importance of the few. As opposed to the practiced objectivity that is the common convention, Nelson’s storytellers are possessive, driven to set the record straight, aware that there will be only one film, maybe ever.
The central characters—Garvey, Walker, et al.—are charismatic, savvy folks who knew how to work a crowd. The narrations are driven by their outrageous actions and brilliant strokes. In the elegant Murder of Emmett Till (which
won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance this year), a mother helps to jump-start the Southern civil rights movement when, against all advice, she publicly exposes the horribly disfigured corpse of her 14-year-old son. Emmett Till was murdered in Money, Mississippi, in 1955, for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Nelson finds witnesses who have not been seen before on film, and old footage, alone worth the trip, made by segregationists pushing the “solution” (segregation) to the “problem” of the state’s majority-black population. Shot in vintage ’50s classroom style, it has a devastating effect, given the friendly white-supremacist content.
The spunky Two Dollars and a Dream, born out of Nelson’s own family history, moves through the turn of the century with Madame Walker, the woman who invents hair-straightening and enlists thousands of black women to enter the business world. She becomes a household name to blacks, and the first African American woman to make a million. Then we romp through the ’20s with her daughter as she spends it all.
Though America’s black press may have expanded most in the ’20s, its greatest impact was probably in the ’40s and ’50s, the decades most fully depicted in Nelson’s film The Black Press. Segregation is at its apex, black communities are widespread and well established, and the political issues are unambiguous. The black papers defy FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, stare down white businesses who refuse to advertise in their pages, and survive on subscriptions. They think national, act local, and are free and outspoken.
Nelson’s most controversial film is his portrait of the nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. Garvey is repeatedly inspired to make the grand gesture, initially adopting the spectacular style of a New York evangelist to preach a catechism of race pride and organize the black masses. He later marches his troops in Ku Klux Klan style and meets with Klan leadership, a move that costs him dearly. In between, he starts newspapers, hosts the largest black rallies ever held, and mismanages several larger-than-life enterprises. He is, of course, dogged into oblivion for his trouble, mostly by the U.S. government, and his legacy is still debated “behind the Veil.” Take the journey.