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Stanley Nelson’s Lifetime Achievement Acceptance Speech

Thank you all so much. This is surreal. You know it’s such an honor to receive this award, especially in front of my peers.

First, I’d like to say thank you to the Academy for this wonderful honor. Thank you to PBS (Paula Kerger, Beth Hoppe, and Marie Nelson) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (Pat Harrison, Joseph Tovares and Sylvia Bugg). They’ve all given me a home for my films on public television. I have a bunch of people to thank. I’ll try to do it really quick, but we’re talking about a lifetime of thank yous. I want to thank the MacArthur Foundation — Kathy Im who’s here.  I want to thank the Ford Foundation – Cara Mertes, I don’t believe she’s here, but thank you very much.  They have supported my work for many years. And I also want to say thank you to my collaborators. As we all know these films are not made by individuals, they’re made with the cooperation of so many people:  Lewis Erskine, the incredible editor who’s in the audience tonight, and so many others who’ve helped.

And I want to also say thank you to Bill Moyers. I have to say that Bill Moyers changed my life.  A few years ago–well not a few, now 25 years ago–Bill did not know me from Adam.  But somehow he’d seen one of my first films, about Madame C.J. Walker, the self-made American woman millionaire, and out of the blue I got a phone call from Bill Moyers.  He sought me out and he offered me a job.

Bill looked away from his known circles, stepped out of his comfort zone, and took a risk on a filmmaker whose work he thought had some promise.

American Experience at PBS also did the same thing. They sought me out, and they took a chance. Taking a chance on me I think benefited not only me, but it also benefited Bill Moyers and American Experience as well.

What they got was a point of view that may not have existed on their programs before. A look at history or contemporary society that many of their viewers had not seen on television before.

I’ve been thinking about the early years of my career – which were really not that long ago – because until recently I’d been watching a lot of television news.  And I’ve been horrified at the discourse that has unfolded this election season – how much support has gone to a candidate who is openly racist and sexist, who is a habitual liar, and who is shockingly ignorant on real issues.

I say until recently because I find myself unable to continue watching the news.  It’s just too painful to realize that that is where we are as a country.

I believe one of the biggest reasons we’ve gotten to this point is our failure to tell the full American story – to let through the voices of people and communities who are increasingly the numerical majority, but who live in the margins of our political process and our culture, including on television. Our failure to tell the full American story creates a fear and longing for a past that never existed. I believe it leads to wanting to build walls instead of embracing the wonderful, unstoppable future that lies ahead.  I feel privileged to have been able to contribute by telling a few – just a few – of the stories that have been left out of the American narrative.

But it is up to me, and to all of us, to do more and to do better. One thing I’m trying to do is expand my production company so we can tell more stories and hire more people to help them tell those stories.

Another is that six years ago, Firelight Media, an organization I co-founded with my wife and business partner Marcia Smith, started a documentary lab to help diverse producers get their work done and out into the world.  That’s been some of the most rewarding work that I’ve done in the last few years, and the lab has been tremendously successful, with 18 films completed, many of which have won awards at major festivals and even some Emmys.

The lab is now run by our wonderful colleague who is here tonight, Loira Limbal.

At Firelight we’re going to try to do our part, and I challenge all of you to figure out what you can do. Step out of your comfort zone. Hire someone who does not look like you. Take a chance on a producer, a writer or a camera person who otherwise would not be able to crack open the door of our very insular industry. Look around the room.

Thank you again to the Academy for this great honor.

I’d like to accept it in the name of my father, who passed away two weeks ago at the age of 100.

My father famously said, when we were celebrating the first time I was nominated for an Emmy—you know the whole gang was celebrating, all the crew, “yeah! We’re nominated! We’re nominated!” My father turned and said, “that’s wonderful, son, but does that come with any monetary renumeration?”

Dr. Stanley Earl Nelson, Sr., this is for you.

And no, it doesn’t come with any monetary renumeration.

Thank You!