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New films highlight the ongoing relevance of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass


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Amna Nawaz: Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, two 19th century giants who led the fight to end slavery in America, they are the latest subjects of a filmmaker long engaged in telling the contributions and challenges of African Americans.

Jeffrey Brown talks with Stanley Nelson about two new documentaries on PBS for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Narrator: What to the American slave is your Fourth of July?

Jeffrey Brown: The words and work of Frederick Douglass to stir a nation in a film titled "Becoming Frederick Douglass."

Narrator: Northern and Southern newspapers related breathless accounts of Colonel Montgomery's campaign on the Combahee River in South Carolina led by Harriet Tubman.

Jeffrey Brown: The escape from bondage and daring rescue missions of Harriet Tubman to bring others north from "Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom."

Two new films from documentarian Stanley Nelson.

Stanley Nelson, Documentarian: But these two people with their own agencies, one, freed themselves, and then didn't stop at freeing themselves, but wanted to make sure that other people were free. And I think that's an important lesson for any age.

What is last line before her?

Jeffrey Brown: Nelson, who we joined recently in the Harlem office of his nonprofit organization Firelight Media, is one of the preeminent chroniclers have a wide range of African American experience, civil rights history, including the film's "Freedom Summer"...

Person: Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Jeffrey Brown: ... and "The Black Panthers."

Person: It happened at just the right time.

Jeffrey Brown: The role of education in "Tell Them We Are Rising."

Person: Black colleges we're redefining what it meant to be Black in America.

Jeffrey Brown: Culture in films like "Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool."

Person: Juilliard in the daytime and, at night, he'd be on 52nd Street.

Jeffrey Brown: And dozens more. His focus has largely been on the 20th century.

In these films, he looks back further.

Person: Right is of no sex. Truth is of no color.

Stanley Nelson: It felt a little bit different. It's harder. It's harder to look back at the 19th century, where you don't have witnesses. And you have no archival footage that you can use.

But we felt from the very beginning that there's a way to do it, that there's a way to tell their stories. And they're important stories, so let's figure out how to tell them.

Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, Harvard University: We now understand that Frederick Douglass was the most photographed American man in the 19th century, not African American man, but American man.

Jeffrey Brown: "Becoming Frederick Douglass" follows the life of a man born into slavery and his journey to becoming an influential leader, a tireless activist and public speaker who learned to use a technology new to his era.

Stanley Nelson: He used his image to further the cause of abolition. He's using the camera to say, look at me. Should I be enslaved?

Jeffrey Brown: Look at me, a Black man, a former slave.

Stanley Nelson: Right. And there's no way that you can't -- you just look at the photos and you see the intelligence in his eyes.

And it's just amazing use of photography, like, right after photography was invented.

Jeffrey Brown: There are just a handful of photos of Harriet Tubman, most as an older woman, and no writings. Nelson focuses on both her extraordinary courage and intelligence, evidenced in the mission she undertook to return south to free others.

Stanley Nelson: It took a lot of planning, it took a lot of knowledge, it took leadership, and she was an incredible human being. We wanted to give that sense of Harriet Tubman.

And I think, in some ways, that's kind of a new thing.

Jeffrey Brown: I don't know how often you have the time or inclination to kind of look back at all the work you have been doing over these years. Do you see a story that you have been telling?

Stanley Nelson: If you add it all up, maybe it's like the quest for freedom in different ways. A lot of my films are about institutions that are trying to change the world and trying to change life in the United States.

And one of the feelings is that I feel and we feel at our company Firelight is that people should tell their own stories. And, in some ways, that's my story. I'm African American as far back as I can trace. It's in my blood. It's in my guts. It's in my brain. And so I try to tell stories from that point of view.

Jeffrey Brown: Do you feel it as a I will even use the word mission to tell them?

Stanley Nelson: Oh, yes, I'm on a mission. We're on a mission at Firelight. We're on a mission to tell stories that haven't been told, to talk about our past, but for everyone, because African American history is American history.

I think we only benefit by telling our history, by opening up our history, by making our history accessible to more and more people. And that's one of the things that film does. You might not pick up a 400-, 500-page book on Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman, but can you spend an hour watching a film? Yes.

And will it enlighten you, hopefully entertain you, maybe even change you? And that's what history does. And I think -- I think that it's really important that we understand that and we look at our history, and we will don't try to block history.

Jeffrey Brown: A related mission for Nelson and Firelight Media helping emerging documentary filmmakers of color get their stories made and seen through its Documentary Lab.

Stanley Nelson: For so much of filmmaking history, documentary history, our stories, as people of color, have been told by other people, and we really feel that there's a need for telling our own stories, that the stories can be a little bit richer, a little bit deeper if you're telling the stories from the inside.

Jeffrey Brown: Nelson's own next projects include a film on the history of policing and Black America and another on African American art.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.

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