Documentarian Stanley Nelson has created a masterpiece again in his new documentary on the history of Historically Black College, “Tell Them We are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities”, A story that examines the impact Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have had on American history, culture, and the national identity. PBS SoCal premieres “Tell Them We are Rising”, on February 16th at 9 p.m. PST. Firelight Media and PBS SoCal hosted a private screening in the Beaudry Theater at L.A. Center Studios, last week to a group of over 300 strong and proud, largely mostly African American audience. Garbed in both Greek paraphernalia and HBCU sweats and tees, a multi-generational of eager viewers sa down to see themselves represented. The film started with where most of Stanley Nelson’s documentaries start, with slavery. Nelson’s films have told the Black story from “The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords to The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution”; he’s been able to dig under the layers of our history here in America like no other filmmaker of our generation.
In “Tell Them We are Rising”, Nelson and his co-writer, Marcia Smith, begin the HBCU story in the post-Civil War South and bring it up to the present day. Through strikingly realistic archival video, historian talking heads and lasting impressionable reenactments, its selection of stills, footage and news commentary makes a brilliantly told story of our history.
A careful variety of HCBU alumni from the 1940s through the ’70s peppered the storytelling with first hand accounts or their experiences of protest, death and celebration. In its sketch of the race’s philosophical divide between two leading Black educational leaders of the early 20th century — Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington and intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois — the film illustrates two opposing views of thinking worked to create full-fledged higher academics at HBCUs, giving way to an unstoppable mixture of Black achievers. Startling showdowns with school and state authorities on and off campus, the students of Historically Black College advanced the cause of civil rights. The film highlighted Thurgood Marshall of Howard University, and his victory of the landmark Brown v. Education case before the Supreme Court in 1954. Also included in the film was the fatal shooting of Denver Smith and Leonard Brown during 1972 protests at Southern University in Baton Rouge. Nelson ends the film with an emotional tearful scene of moving-in day for arriving freshmen, and the testimonials of two female students on explaining why they chose to attend a Black university; one was the “token Black” of her high school and the other going through school without ever having a Black teacher.
After the screening, the audience was able to engage with a panel of influential HBCU graduates to discuss their impressions. Included in the panel was Director Stanley Nelson, “Tell Them We Are Rising – The Story of Black Colleges and Universities, Dr. Michael Lomax – CEO, United Negro College Fund, Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell – president, Spelman College, Dr. Melina Abdullah, professor and chair of Pan-African Studies, Will Packer – producer, Will Packer Productions, moderated by Sonya Childress, from Firelight Media.
“We just told good stories and had to make some hard choices,” expressed Stanley Nelson. “I forget what I left on the floor. I felt like we got it right.” Everyone applauded the work of Firelight and PBS on featuring a poignant documentary in this day and age. Spelman College president, Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell remembered the scene in the films that depicted women of Spelman. “When these girls make a very deliberate decision to go to HBCU’s, students are saying that ‘I want to go somewhere where I’m loved. We were and continue to be a safe space and play a big role in nurturing disruptors.”
“Tell Them We Are Rising – The Story of Black Colleges and Universities”, by Stanley Nelson and Marco Williams premieres on PBS So Cal at 9pm PST.