film Stanley Nelson Talks About His Documentaries ‘Miles Davis: Birth of The Cool’ and ‘Boss: The Black Experience in Business’
Peabody and Emmy Award winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson (Freedom Summer, Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution) premiered his 10th feature“Miles Davis: Birth of The Cool” at the Sundance Film festival. This happens to be a record for a documentary filmmaker. The movie examines the music and legacy of legendary jazz musician Miles Davis. “The story of Miles Davis—who he was as a man and artist—has often been told as the tale of a drug-addled genius,” said director Stanley Nelson. “You rarely see a portrait of a man that worked hard at honing his craft, a man who deeply studied all forms of music, from Baroque to classical Indian. An elegant man who could render ballads with such tenderness yet hold rage in his heart from the racism he faced throughout his life. I’ve been fascinated with Miles since my college years and have dreamed of telling his story ever since.”
His new project, “Boss: The Black Experience in Business” showcases the history of black entrepreneurs over 150 years in the US. Stories featured in the film include those of entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, publisher John H. Johnson, Motown CEO Berry Gordy, philanthropist Reginald F. Lewis and many others. The documentary follows their achievements and challenges including racism, economic exclusion, violence and discrimination. The PBS film includes interviews with Ursula Burns (former CEO of Xerox), Cathy Hughes, CEO and founder of Urban One, Richelieu Dennis (founder/CEO of Sundial Brands and owner of Essence), and Robert F. Smith the wealthiest African-American in the world. Nelson also leads the team at Firelight Media his Harlem based company, which is focused on producing historical and contemporary social issue documentaries. BlackFilm spoke with the accomplished director and producer about his latest projects.
BlackFilm: You premiered “Miles Davis: Birth of The Cool” at Sundance. What was your experience like to premiere your 10th feature at the festival? It happens to be a record for a documentarian. Can you talk further about that?
Stanley Nelson: I think it’s always a unique experience to premiere a film at Sundance. It’s the biggest film festival in the country. It’s always great. The audiences are appreciative. But every single film is unique. So I don’t feel like because I’ve gotten one film in there I’m going to get another, so every time it’s very unique. Miles Davis Birth of The Cool is a film that I love. So it was really a pleasure and an honor to screen at Sundance.
BlackFilm: How did you decide to take the approach that you took when telling the story of Miles Davis?
Stanley Nelson: I think one of the big things about the film is that it is kind of narrated by Miles. So we have an actor who is reading from Miles’ words. I think that approach we took because we felt like there wasn’t a way to do this film without a standard, regular narrator. But by using Miles’ own words, kind of having Miles narrate his own life. We have a real insight into what Miles was feeling about certain things that happened in his life. I think that that really makes the film unique.
BlackFilm: How important was mentorship to his career? He had relationships with jazz greats like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Byrd. Can you discuss that further?
Stanley Nelson: For Miles, the fact that he was playing on such a high level with so many jazz greats. At such an early age, gave him an incredible foundation. But also gave him something to reach for even greater. He had already achieved greatness at the age of nineteen. So where do you go from there? You try to build on that and continue to make great music—and he did.
BlackFilm: He was trained as a classical musician and attended Julliard. How did Miles evolve as a jazz musician? What influence did bebop have on his music?
Stanley Nelson: I think Miles lived a unique experience. Miles was going to Julliard in the daytime and at night he was playing on 52nd street with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and the founders of bebop. Which was this new inventive music. So it was a unique experience for Miles. He is not only saturated in music, but he is saturated in different kinds of music. It shows in Miles’ career. He was always seeking to change what he was doing and to change music. It was just incredible.
BlackFilm: How did you select the actor who provides additional narration in the movie?
Stanley Nelson: We selected Carl Lumbly. He is an actor whose work I knew. I just thought Carl was a great, great actor. We sent him some tapes of Miles and had him read as Miles. From what we heard on the tapes it was close enough and we said let’s go with it.
BlackFilm: How did you decide to include his personal relationships with his parents in the movie and his childhood influence— from that experience that he had with his rearing?
Stanley Nelson: I think that the influences that Miles lived through as a child were influential. It was obviously a part of who he became. It was central to his character and central to what we wanted to do.
BlackFilm: Quincy Jones is a prolific producer and musician who was mentored by Miles Davis and worked with him. How did you approach him about sharing his experiences with Miles Davis in the film?
Stanley Nelson: I think for us it was just trying to lock Quincy down, because believe it or not he is still so busy doing so many things. We found that in most general terms people leaped at the chance to talk about Miles. So we were able to secure not just Quincy, but pretty much anyone we wanted to talk to about Miles. The only person we didn’t get was Cecily Tyson. She said she was writing a book and wanted to keep her memories for her own book.
BlackFilm: She was married to Miles. She and Miles Davis also had a tumultuous marriage and relationship. You said that she only just declined to participate because of the book? She didn’t give any additional input?
Stanley Nelson: Nope.
BlackFilm: How did you get people like Clive Davis, Herbie Hancock, Jimmie Cobb and Wayne Shorter? How did you get them involved as well?
Stanley Nelson: My great producer Nicole London who really made all of the first contacts. She made all the initial contacts and tried to convince everyone to participate in the film. I think that once you get one or two people, then people start to kind of— they talk to each other. They say…you know I really think these people are trying to make a really sincere film and a clear-eyed look at Miles. People basically wanted to participate.
BlackFilm: What do you hope for the audience to discover about Miles Davis and his legacy that they didn’t know about before?
Stanley Nelson: I think one of the tricks about doing a film about someone like Miles Davis, an event or a person that’s famous or infamous is that we have some people coming into the theaters who don’t know anything about Miles. We also have people coming into the theater who think they know a lot about Miles. I feel like this film offers either ends of that spectrum—something that they didn’t know. If you didn’t know anything about Miles, you’ll learn something about his music. If you did know about Miles, then you’ll learn something about Miles the man that you didn’t know.
BlackFilm: For any novice or person who is not familiar with Miles’ music. What are your suggestions of any types of his musical performances or compilations for them to dive into as a crash course on his music?
Stanley Nelson: I think the great thing about now is that so much music exists streaming. That you can jump into and obviously the biggest selling Jazz album of all time was Kind of Blue. I think that’s one place to start. One of the things that we wanted to make sure, that we did in the film was also to give you an idea of the stuff—that’s earlier than that. And also the stuff that is later, that comes out in the late 60’s and 70’s and 80’s, which is very different. There are two ends of the spectrum might be Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew. That’s the thing about Miles is he existed for 60 years or so. Making music for 50 years, so there is so much to choose from. You can go to Spotify and hit that thing that gives you the most famous tracks. Hit that button and see what it comes up with.
BlackFilm: You had special attendees and live performances at the Sundance premiere party including Bilal. How did you get such a stellar lineup of musicians to attend the festival?
Stanley Nelson: I think one of the things is that Miles was an influence on so many people. When you say that you’re doing a film on Miles Davis. His family is cooperating. Sony Music is cooperating. Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Jimmie Cobb who played with Miles are cooperating. Mtume, Vince Wilburn and Mike Stern who played with him in the later years are in the film. All of those people. People realize that what we do is legitimate and it helps in convincing them to participate.
BlackFilm: Your film “Boss: The Black Experience in Business” premiered last April. What are the attributes of an entrepreneur?
Stanley Nelson: I think its inventiveness and perseverance. Those two things are the attributes of entrepreneurs. I think any of those two things and a certain optimism that it’s going to work out—that things are going to work out for you. I think those are the things that an entrepreneur brings to the table.
BlackFilm: You showcase the history of entrepreneurs in the United States. How did you decide which stories to tell in the movie?
Stanley Nelson: One of the things that was a difficult choice was which entrepreneurs and which businesses do you profile? One of the things that we chose to do was to think about different industries—and focus on different industries. So that we cover the beauty industry ranging from Annie Malone and Madame Walker products up to today we talk about Rich Dennis and his businesses. We talk about the beginnings of African-Americans in publishing up to today. We talk about Cathy Hughes and radio as kind of the new publishing. We chose to focus on different areas of business and we’re looking for good stories. Obviously, you can’t cover everything; there were some things that were left out. But we tried to give an idea of the long intricate and involved history of African-Americans in business.
BlackFilm: What are some of the challenges that African-Americans faced in business in the past, that are still applicable to them being successful in business today?
Stanley Nelson: I think access to capital is difficult. It’s always been difficult for African-American business people. Racism, the racism in business and you have racism in this country. You have to fight through that to be successful. I think those things are still in existence as they were a hundred years ago. Maybe in a different way or not as much. But they are part of what African-American entrepreneurs and business people have to fight through.
BlackFilm: You also showcase Robert F. Smith. Can you talk more about his journey and the successes that he was able to achieve in his career?
Stanley Nelson: Robert Smith is the last profile that we do in the film. We were really fortunate to get him to sit down and talk to us. To get to be able to profile Robert and his businesses. Robert is the wealthiest African-American in the world right now. He’s been very, very successful in the tech industry. Also for a long time we felt that probably tech should be in the film, because that is kind of the new frontier in business. We were very fortunate to get Robert and to be able to talk about his businesses. And how he has evolved into kind of a tech titan.
BlackFilm: Among the Fortune 500 companies, there aren’t —people have been saying statistically that there aren’t as many African-American CEO’s as there once were. What are your comments regarding the status now of the industry and the state of entrepreneurship among those top companies?
Stanley Nelson: I think there is a bigger issue and I think it is that as another historically based film. The one thing that I’ve seen is that our lives as African-Americans is not this continuous upwardly mobile march towards the heavens that sometimes we want to think it is. It’s a rollercoaster ride and sometimes some things are working out better than others. I think we’re in a position right now where in some ways; we are certainly not at a high point where we are in this country. That’s reflected in business and that’s reflected all over. But I think the one thing that we learn is that things only change when we push for them to change. When we actively force change. That’s what is really important.
BlackFilm: There is a conversation that has been ongoing with the presidential candidates and other senators in Congress regarding reparations and whether or not the fact that African-Americans when they were freed, they were promised forty acres and a mule, but they never received that. What impact would that forty acres and a mule have had on those freed slaves, with their approaches to entrepreneurship and successful lives for themselves and their families?
Stanley Nelson: Anything I say about that is obviously purely speculative. I think if we understand what happened during slavery, where African-Americans were forbidden in much of this country to learn to even read and write. We were forbidden to make money. We were run out of business. There were places in the country where, in the South where any African-Americans had to be out of the county by sundown. So basically we were forbidden, not only from participating in this country, but even from getting any kind of education. That was part of what was done and then one day they said—okay now you’re free. And you have nothing and you’re not in anyway compensated for what had gone on for hundreds of years, in generations of African-Americans. So, obviously it would have been a whole different story if you give African-Americans some kind of reparations. Some kind of stake in life, whether it is forty acres and a mule. Whether it is some money or something that you have to compensate for these years of degradation and neglect. Who knows what we would be now, but it would certainly be different from where we are now. Hopefully we would be a little bit better.
BlackFilm: Ursula Burns who is the former CEO of Xerox and Richelieu Dennis, who you mentioned earlier who is the owner of Essence and the CEO of Sundial Brands. They are featured in the film; can you share some of the anecdotes that they shared with you that are in the film regarding their experience as entrepreneurs and also in the business world?
Stanley Nelson: What is in the film is that Ursula Burns started working for Xerox as a summer intern and went on to be the executive assistant of the CEO as she says in the film. She went, “wait a minute I can do this job. I can be CEO.” And she finally rises to be the first African-American woman CEO for a Fortune 500 company. Rich Dennis started selling Shea Butter on the streets in Harlem as a refugee from Liberia, from West Africa. And ends up with Shea Moisture, he sells that and buys Essence and has other companies that he is dealing with—these are two fantastic success stories.
BlackFilm: You have a varied selection of films and subject matter that you tackle with each of your projects. How do you decide which types of projects are worthy of being a feature length documentary? What other projects do you have coming up that we can look for in upcoming releases?
Stanley Nelson: There are a few projects that we have coming up. We’re working on two films with Public television and Future One on the biography of Harriet Tubman. There is a biography on Frederick Douglass that we just signed on to do. The big one is our four part series on the Atlantic Slave trade and looking at the slave trade as a business. As this global business that put into place so many of the institutions that we live with today. Also in many ways the foundation of how we think about race in the world. Came out of the Atlantic Slave trade.
BlackFilm: Where can people see the film?
Stanley Nelson: If you go to milesdavismovie.com it tells all the different venues and different cities. We’re in way over 40 different cities now. Chicago just came in yesterday, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Atlanta, New Orleans. I don’t know there’s a bunch of them. There are over 40 cities right now. New ones are coming in everyday. One thing I would love for people to do is turn out for the film. We will get more films like this made if people attend them during the first weekend that they appear in people’s markets.
Miles Davis: Birth of The Cool is now playing in NY at The Film Forum and The Landmark L.A. The film opens in additional markets beginning in September. Miles Davis : Birth of The Cool is an Abramorama release. Stanley Nelson’s Boss : The Black Experience in Business aired on PBS and is available on demand.