Black History Month is the perfect time for another Stanley Nelson documentary. It’s been two years since Independent Lens showcased his last feature, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, also in February, and I wish he had something like this every year. Despite the fact that Nelson isn’t as prolific as I tend to think he is, and despite the fact that he doesn’t always exclusively focus on black history, I associate him with this area of study more than anything else and more than anyone else. And yet I do take him for granted in that.
Nelson’s work is very conventional, using interviews with historians and the people involved first-hand in the events he’s chronicling as his primary device. The talking heads and archive material style isn’t exciting, but Nelson’s work is always appreciated for being informative and pointed, never featuring irrelevant or redundant illustrative footage just for the sake of visual filler. Even if some subjects deserve further study, I always come away having learned something. Often, as in the case of Freedom Riders, it’s something I’d sadly never been exposed to anywhere else.
So, I looked forward to Nelson’s latest, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, with the expectation I’d merely learn the story of historically black colleges and universities. A story I knew nothing about and was interest in hearing, and to a degree seeing, in the form of Nelson’s usual format of a straightforward documentary lesson. Admittedly, the subject didn’t sound like it would be the most relatable or personally affecting piece of black history, but even if it’s not always that riveting, the doc does engage in ways I wasn’t expecting.
The story begins back in the days of slavery, when there were laws against even teaching slaves to read and write. It’s so obvious when you think about it, and maybe Tell Them We Are Rising nudges such easily taken-for-granted thought, that educated slaves were seen as dangerous because it leads to further learning, and with that learning came further, deeper thinking, which opened people up to questioning their enslavement, then their lack of equal rights, and so forth. The film doesn’t just track a timeline of the founding of institutions for education; it reminds us of how increased education influenced and further inspires civil rights movements.
Even as I write that, it seems like such a “no shit” theme, but clearly it’s not one that is regularly concentrated on. A lot of people have the belief, mostly in the back of their minds, that certain political powers intend to misinform and to keep citizens as stupid as possible in order to better control them. It sounds like conspiracy theory fodder when stated explicitly, at least in terms of it actually being a goal of governments. That what seems like just bad decisions regarding federal hires and policies for education might be part of a plan to ruin or depreciate the standards of schools in order to keep more people thinking less. But when you look at a history like the one at the center of Tell Them We Are Rising, it just doesn’t seem so farfetched.
Not that Nelson is necessarily trying to comment on the current education system or U.S. Department of Education. Nor is he just telling the history to us straight without realizing the modern relevance. Historians should never think there’s no current context for their lessons, of course, but there is a difference between the more specific story of the Freedom Riders and the broader chronicle of the foundation and importance of HBCUs. There’s something bigger for anyone, not just African Americans, to take away from the implications of Tell Them We Are Rising reminding us of the importance of education (including, in a meta way, history) to keep us not just informed but provoked and empowered — always thinking critically and never complacent.
Of course, the doc is also compelling for its surface material, including the details of the Atlanta Exposition Speech and why it was so controversial (also: educated people whom you’d assume would or did get along on certain things didn’t, because free thought!) and the story of the 1972 Southern University Massacre, which I’m shocked isn’t more well-known and which probably could be the subject of a documentary all its own. With the latter, the contrast between the detailed accounts and footage of the incident against new comments offered by the then-Governor of Louisiana Edwin Edwards is astounding, with Edwards reminding me of the obliviousness of George Wallace in his cringeworthy interview in Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls.
And there are a few neat little human interest stories in Tell Them We Are Rising that guide us through other topics. One using an interview with a couple who’ve been married almost 70 years to focus on the way HBCUs weren’t just important for education but also provided African Americans with a social setting — to organize, sure, or simply fall in love and plan a family. The other comes at the end of the film in a seemingly light look at HBCUs today, following young characters as they go off to school. Another film might have just shown us some generic content to close out with but here there’s a whole other chapter presented concisely in the final 10 minutes addressing modern racial issues of identity and representation.
Someone could probably also turn those character-driven narratives into a feature of their own, but even if Tell Them We Are Rising might be too segmented, compiling a lot of introductory units of a history that could be longer or more in depth, the doc is hardly a cursory work and doesn’t ever feel that way. There are some parts that could be primers for more comprehensive consideration, but that’s the case with most histories and documentaries. Especially as they overlap with other films that would focus more intently on the Civil Rights movement or specifically on the University of Alabama’s “integration crisis,” etc.
For this film, the overarching theme of the true importance of education to all, past, present, and future, with specific focus on what it has meant to African Americans in the past and present and going forward makes it a more unified experience of the fragmented history. Nelson has made docs that can be casually viewed, but this isn’t one of them. You might not recall all the bits of information after watching it, but even more than feeling like you learned something you are sure to come away with more thoughts about education and hopefully see it as still — if not more so now — as one of the most crucial concerns of our time.