Stanley Nelson Brings History to Life
A renowned documentarian revisits the lives of two nineteenth-century activists.
"As a filmmaker, I'm constantly thinking of ways that we can make people come alive," says director Stanley Nelson. And for his two latest documentaries, Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom and Becoming Frederick Douglass, he turned to varied techniques to bring to life two giants of American history.
Douglass — an abolitionist and statesman whose life almost spanned the 1800s — left an abundance of visual resources. A former enslaved person, he understood imagery in a way that any Instagram influencer would envy.
"I was surprised to learn that he's constantly referred to as the most photographed person of the nineteenth century," Nelson says. "He recognized the power of photography. He's almost looking at the camera and saying, 'Really, should I be enslaved? Really?'"
To add power to Douglass' writings, Nelson chose actor Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Selma) to read them. "He did an incredible job," Nelson says, and the actor's association with HBO's Baltimore-centric The Wire subtly underscores the connections between the two documentaries.
"One of the things that's really important about these two films," Nelson explains, "is that they're both set in Maryland at the beginning of their lives. [Enslavement in] Maryland was very different from the way we think about enslavement in Mississippi or Alabama or Georgia. From Maryland, you could walk to Pennsylvania."
That's how Tubman — also an abolitionist, who was born 200 years ago — helped seventy enslaved people attain their freedom. One such journey comes to life so tensely in the documentary, you might wonder if everyone survived the journey.
"Harriet Tubman was basically illiterate and didn't talk about what she did, to a certain extent," Nelson says. Despite the research challenges, "We had to try to give the audience a feeling of how it must have felt and the uncertainty of the journey."
A MacArthur fellow, the filmmaker has won three Emmy Awards and a Peabody and received a National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama. He's currently working on a documentary about African Americans and law enforcement.
Getting audiences swept up in the drama of history is always his goal, and Nelson knows film can open the door to learning. "You might not want to sit down and read a book on Harriet Tubman," he says, "but you can sit for an hour, and that's really the start."
Following their debuts on PBS, Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom (October 4) and Becoming Frederick Douglass (October 11) will stream on PBS.org.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #11, 2022, under the title, "Their Lives Through His Lens."