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20 Trailblazing Years: Firelight Media Lights the Way for Filmmakers of Color

By Tracie Lewis

Stanley Nelson and Marcia Smith are celebrating 20 years of building Firelight Media into a company that tells eloquent stories about Black people, events and movements and is leading the charge empowering filmmakers of color to create their own work.

“The very first day, the two of us were sitting there looking at each other in our spare bedroom,” Smith recalls. “It was the fall of 2000 and we were like, ‘OK, great, we did it. Now, what’s it mean?’”

The initial conversations between Nelson and Smith about Firelight—who are partners in life as well as film—were about starting a nonprofit and what it would look like. Nelson, already making films under the banner Half Nelson Productions, changed the name to Firelight Media. “Both of us understood how unsustainable it was to be an independent documentary filmmaker,” Smith explains. “When we came together, we came with different skill sets; we wanted to build a sustainable way to do that. So how could we try to make that sustainable and not the kind of hand-to-mouth existence—which, frankly for a lot of people, it still is—to be a documentary filmmaker?” 

Their collaborative process has evolved over the years. “Marcia has great skills as a writer,” Nelson explains. “She wrote the films and the proposals. She came out of philanthropy and knew that world very well. I work as the producer/director on the films.  But from the beginning, I think one of the things that was essential was that we had different roles. I trusted Marcia implicitly not just as a writer and fundraiser but also [with] her opinion on the cut and filmmaking."

 “I think that’s one thing that hasn’t changed: depending on where you are in the process, it’s a mad dash,” Smith explains. “That first fall it was a mad dash to finish the Garvey film [Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind], which premiered at Sundance in January 2001—“also with a ten-year old and one-year-old twins at the time,” Nelson interjects.

Twenty years later, the husband-and-wife team’s mad dash is two-fold. Firelight Films produces Nelson’s films and Firelight Media is the artist development nonprofit. The couple understands the labyrinth of challenges independent filmmakers face in applying for funding, grants and labs; the access and denials from gatekeepers and distributors; and the unending fortitude to tell uncompromising stories and cultivate the appropriate audiences.

Firelight’s growth in the past 20 years is considerable. The Harlem-based company has grown from just Nelson and Smith to a company of 15, with Nelson as founder and Smith as president. In late 2019, the company hired Keith Brown as Executive Vice President of Content and Monika Navarro as Senior Director of Artists’ Programs and promoted Loira Limbal to Senior Vice President for Programs. 

Firelight Media’s 11-year old Documentary Lab Program is competitive. The 18-month fellowship program provides support to emerging filmmakers of color through mentorships, funding resources, professional development and networking opportunities.  In 2019, 225 applications were submitted and 12 filmmakers were accepted. The lab accepted five applicants in the first year. 

A new fund launched this year was named after the late William Greaves (Black Journal, Still a Brother), the award-winning director/producer/actor/teacher, a mentor to Nelson and, like Nelson, an IDA Career Achievement Award honoree. The fund will grant mid-career filmmakers of color financial and mentorship support to research and develop projects of up to $25,000. The international fund accepted submissions from the United States, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Colombia and Brazil.

“We think this is super important because it’s a way for us to support proven filmmakers who still have a hard time getting another project done,” asserts Smith. “We hope to grow that in the future.” 

The Greaves Fund accepted nine filmmakers into the program in August. Julianna Brannum (LaDonna Harris: Indian 101) is among the inaugural group.  Brannum, a co-producer on Wounded Knee, directed by Nelson, says, “Stanley is a master storyteller and is relentless in his mission to find the very best people to help tell that, and relentless in his pursuit of the very best supporting material. He and Marcia both are so great at keeping the story focused, while still using the important threads to weave a rich and layered story.

“To be honest,” Brannum continues, “I was a little freaked out that I was going to journey back into launching a project from the ground up, but if it wasn't for Firelight Media and this initiative to support mid-career filmmakers, I probably wouldn't have found the resources to get it off the ground. So, the mission of the William Greaves Fund has really served itself, in my case. And I couldn't be more grateful for that!”

At the same time, Firelight announced six recipients for the inaugural Impact Campaign Fund, a resource to help filmmakers with impact campaigns to reach their intended audiences. The fund is open to Firelight Documentary lab directors, current and former Documentary Lab and Impact Producer Fellow team members of color. The six grantees are awarded $25,000 each. “This is also something that we have done since the beginning of Firelight,” Smith notes. “Try to build materials and events and connections with organizations that have an investment in the content of the film. When Stanley did the film on The Black Press in 1999, he partnered with the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) and other journalism organizations to create it, to discuss the issues related to advocacy journalism, Black journalism.”

Earlier this year, the Los Angeles-based collective BADWest (Black Association of Documentary Filmmakers West) presented Nelson with the first-ever St. Clair Bourne Vanguard Award. BADWest, founded by the late filmmaker St. Clair Bourne, who was a mentor to Nelson, hosted a private reception, and Nelson participated in a two-hour master class as part of the event, which was co-presented by IDA.  

This was just one of the many career honors Nelson has received. Others include a Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award, an Individual Peabody Award, a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, and the National Medal in the Humanities from President Barack Obama. In addition, he has received numerous awards for his illustrious films.

As for Smith, “Marcia is the powerhouse,” Brannum asserts. “She's a brilliant writer and storyteller as well. Her intelligence is stunning. She's pragmatic, creative and thoughtful in her approach. I quickly realized after working with her that she was the brains behind Firelight!”

Smith is an Emmy-nominated writer and Writers Guild of America winner for the American Experience documentary The Murder of Emmett Till, directed by Nelson. In 2016, New York Women in Film & Television (NYWIFT) honored her with a Muse Award for Outstanding Vision and Achievement, and in 2019, BlackStar Film Festival honored her with the Richard Nichols Luminary Award.

Smith isn’t interested in directing, but she creates content in a different way. Last February she produced an Installation project, which she describes as “an African American history pop-up museum, an installation in a vacant house originally built for mill workers in a historically black neighborhood in Apalachicola, Florida. It featured installations, archival photos and videos, and interactive mapping.”

In 2019 Firelight Media began a screening series in Harlem, Films by Firelight, showcasing films by the Documentary Lab filmmakers and also some of Nelson’s work. But the COVID-19 pandemic forced an abrupt pivot to a new normal, and Firelight was quick to address and serve the needs of filmmakers of color during this time. “We were witnessing many of the filmmakers that we support being hit hard by the pandemic in a lot of ways,” Smith explains. “From people getting sick and having family members sick, to four films that were supposed to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, which was cancelled. So, we started Beyond Resilience as an online discussion platform to really explore issues that were emerging but also to draw on the strength of filmmakers of color who have been working under difficult conditions already.” 

Beyond Resilience replaced the screening series. “We had to take it virtual because everything had to be virtual, which actually turned out to be great,” Smith says. “We had a role to play in the pandemic. We wanted filmmakers of color to play a leadership role with discussions about the field during a pandemic and we thought we could build a platform to do that. We’ve had as many as 800 people in a virtual presentation.”

The focus for the entertainment industry was on studio productions shutting down, theaters closing and film release dates getting postponed or finding new homes on digital platforms. Little discussion was given to independent documentary filmmakers getting by grant by grant or without a festival to screen their film. The coronavirus has impacted filmmakers of color at a disproportionately higher rate, and they have a much greater burden to bear personally and professionally. Firelight quickly stepped up, providing webinars (in conjunction with IDA and ITVS), consultation services and hands-on help to apply for financial funds from the CARES Act for workers and small businesses and Small Business Assistance (SBA) disaster assistance loan for filmmakers facing risks and challenges.

On the heels of young people taking to the streets and protesting the murder of George Floyd, Nelson wrote an editorial for the Los Angeles Times. In the first paragraph, he quotes from the first issue of Freedom’s Journal, the first Black-owned newspaper in the US and also a subject of Nelson’s second film, The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords. The quote reads, “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misinterpretations in things which concern us dearly.”

As a result of the piece, Nelson says, “We’ve gotten feedback from some executives who control funding and saying, ‘Yeah, you’re right. You’ve given us a lot to think about.’ That was a thought piece that we wanted to throw out there and say, ‘This is what we believe.’ Everybody’s talking about George Floyd and Black Lives Matter and how they want to change the way that stuff is done.”  Smith adds, “But also there’s distributors. You have to stop commissioning people to make films that they have no background knowledge in.”

Nelson and Smith are intentional with their body of work and mission for the company. Nelson’s first film tells the story of the first self-made African American millionaire, Two Dollars and a Dream: The Story of Madame C.J. Walker, and continues with movements (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution; Freedom Riders) and icons (Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool); he also bravely turns the camera on himself in A Place of Our Own.

Firelight Films has a lot to be excited about: They recently completed a 90-minute documentary on the crack epidemic for Netflix; Showtime Networks announced the feature-length documentary, Attica, about the 1971 five-day prison rebellion in upstate New York; Blackfin, NBA star Russell Westbrook, and Firelight Films are partnering for the docuseries Terror in Tulsa: The Rise and Fall of Black Wall Street, about the 1921 race massacre in the Greenwood District, an affluent African American community in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Nelson is directing and producing a four-part series for a later broadcast on Independent Lens entitled Creating the New World: The Transatlantic Slave Trade.  

In addition, Firelight Media recently partnered with American Masters for a documentary short film series called In the Making. The eight shorts in the series are by emerging BIPOC filmmakers, mostly from Firelight's Documentary Lab. 

Even with these projects, the Firelight team is acutely aware of the difficulties of getting a film made. “It’s still hard to get your foot in the door,” Nelson maintains. “These documentary providers all look at it as a business and what they’re trying to do is lower their risk, and the way to lower their risk, they feel, is to hire the most experienced person that you can find. That’s one of the things we’re trying to push and combat in the lab.” Smith adds, “It’s a lot easier for us than them, which is part of the problem. The gatekeepers in the industry recognize just a handful of filmmakers of color and there’s a lot more that could do the work.” 

Nelson and Smith are keenly aware of the power of representation and how much it matters who tells the story and how these stories will reside in our history. Firelight is blazing a trail on their terms as agents of change, empowering filmmakers of color to tell their stories and continuing to amplify films about people of color one film at a time.

Tracie Lewis writes, is directing a documentary and teaches the history of American film and world cinemas at Chaffey College.