Every year, Marymount Manhattan College gives an honorary degree to recognize one or more individuals for their extraordinary achievements. This year, at the 2017 Commencement Ceremony, Emmy Award-winner and documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson Jr. will be added to the long list of remarkable people who have also been recognized by the College.
Nelson has lived in New York City his whole life. He was born and raised in Harlem and attended a private Manhattan school from kindergarten through high school. He graduated from the Leonard Davis Film School of the City College of New York in 1976, and since then he has directed and produced an astonishing twenty-one documentaries surrounding the history and experiences of African-Americans.
His latest project, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, explores the uprising of the Black Panther Party, which was originally founded in 1966. The documentary features archival footage and interviews from surviving party members and FBI agents who were working at the time of the party’s rise. The film took seven long years to complete and Nelson himself interviewed a total of 51 people.
Nelson expressed his fear of no one wanting to be interviewed to Filmmaker Magazine in 2015. He said, “At some point I decided this was a film that needed to be made and in order to do so, I had to confront my fear and be candid about my passion and confidence in the film.” His confidence inspired those in the film to talk about their experiences.
The documentary premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and then received a limited North American theatrical release that began September 2, 2015. The film received ample critical acclaim and scored a solid 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes (which is a feat in and of itself).
The coolest thing about the documentary, though, is not the response it received, but the sub- jects it examines. When asked to describe a Black Panther documentary, freshman Evan Vincent shared, “I think it would be sad. It’s sad that there had to be a group like that in the rst place. It’s sad that the problems are still happening today.”
The issue of police brutality was seminal to the Black Panther Party and is one of the film’s greatest influences. The release of the documentary in 2015, right before the Black Lives Matter movement protested over the death of Freddie Grey in Baltimore, could not have been more appropriate.
Nelson’s outstanding work toward discussing and solving the issue of racial inequality in America has won him countless awards (two for The Black Panthers: the Vanguard of the Revolution) and a spot on Marymount Manhattan College’s Honorary Degree Recipients list. Interestingly enough, Coretta Scott King and Rosa Parks, two incredible icons for their work in the Civil Rights Movement, have also received honorary degrees from the College.
Marymount Manhattan College is dedicated to developing a conversation revolving around social, political, and cultural problems. The College uses conversation to inspire stu- dents to participate in and improve the society we live in. Nelson’s films are directly related to this mission and reflect the College’s upheld ideals. Freshman Lucy Thomas believes, “Giving [Nelson] this award is exactly what Marymount needs to do. We need to show where we stand as a school and awarding him for his films that deal with this huge problem America has is a great step towards that.”