[“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..."] [https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE CULTURE 

 STANLEY NELSON TALKS ABOUT HIS DOCUMENTARIES ‘MILES DAVIS: BIRTH OF
THE COOL’ AND ‘BOSS: THE BLACK EXPERIENCE IN BUSINESS’  
[https://portside.org/2019-09-03/stanley-nelson-talks-about-his-documentaries-miles-davis-birth-cool-and-boss-black]


 

 Shanni Harris 
 August 24, 2019
BLACKFILM
[https://www.blackfilm.com/read/2019/08/stanley-nelson-talks-about-his-documentaries-miles-davis-birth-of-the-cool-and-boss-the-black-experience-in-business/]


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 _ “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..." _ 

 Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, undiscovermusic.com 

 

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. 

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