Stanley Nelson’s new documentary on the legacy of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) takes its name from a scene describing General O.O. Howard, a White Union general and Howard University’s namesake, talking to formerly enslaved students in the South. “He asked, ‘What should I tell the people up North about the plight of the former slaves?’” narrates historian James Anderson in the film. “And 13-year-old Richard Robert Wright rose and said, ‘Tell them we are rising.’” Wright would later found the HBCU that became Savannah State University.
Most of “Tell Them We Are Rising,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah yesterday (January 23), focuses on this sense of triumph and progression. It features archival footage of HBCU students cheering during football games, marching at protests for different racial justice movements, celebrating commencements and forging lifelong bonds with one another. No film before this one explores the transformative role that HBCUs have played in building Black political and economic strength.
But the film doesn’t shy away from many of these institutions’ problematic histories. Using testimony from student activist leaders and police, one sequence deconstructs the horrific killing of Southern University students Denver Smith and Leonard Brown by sheriff’s deputies when they and state police used tear gas and firearms to quell a student takeover of an administrative building in 1972. Another scene depicts the crumbling, graffiti-covered football stadium of Morris Brown College, which lost its accreditation in 2002 amidst financial troubles not uncommon among many smaller HBCUs. Nelson spoke to Colorlines over the phone about including both sides of the HBCU story, cooperation with these institutions, their future and much more.
“Tell Them We Are Rising” is the first documentary that examines HBCUs’ history. What compelled you to create this film now?
Both my parents went to Black colleges. My mother went to Talladega College and my father went to Howard for dental school. My father, who grew up in Washington D.C., made it clear that if Howard hadn’t been there, he wouldn’t have gone to college. His going to school and becoming a dentist changed my life, my kids’ lives and will change my family’s life through generations. But I’d like to think that even if I didn’t have this personal connection, I would have wanted to make this film. Black colleges have been instrumental to informing Black communities and society in this country. It’s a story that hasn’t been told.
The film examines the contemporary state of both thriving HBCUs and those, like Morris Brown College, that fell victim to the structural problems of financial hardship and falling student enrollment after White schools desegregated. What do you think separates the successful schools from the troubled ones?
I don’t want to oversimplify, but there are over 100 Black colleges in this country, and there’s probably not a need for that many. There will be some consolidation, and that’s just the reality. Some of the bigger schools like Howard, Fisk and Spelman are doing well. We don’t talk about this in the film because we couldn’t cover everything, but there are some public HBCUs that are becoming more Latino, more White, or shrinking and trying new things. Twenty years down the line, there probably won’t be over 100 schools. Some will disappear, and some hopefully will become stronger. As we see in the film and saw over the last year-and-a-half, there are real reasons why a student would choose a Black college. We saw that with the [new protests] on Black colleges and the talk of microaggressions that happen at White institutions. There are still good reasons why someone might choose to go to a Black college in the future, and there will be unless things change in this country.
You used a lot of HBCU alumni interviews and schools’ archival footage to deepen this historical narrative. How cooperative were the involved schools and their alumni communities towards your requests, especially given the inclusion of less-than-flattering history?
We had great cooperation. Morris Brown gave us permission to shoot there, and it is what it is. They’re still going and hoping to get their accreditation back. It was our example of what can happen, and it’s poignant to see chains on a building built in the 1880s, and that the football stadium that seemed vibrant and filled with fans is now empty and graffitied-over. We don’t think about the fact that that can actually happen to these institutions and their fiscal plans.
We had a lot of schools shoot stuff themselves for us and send us digital files. We see a montage of people coming into the schools for the year’s start, marching bands, students working and stuff like that. A lot of these schools had communications departments that were able to shoot stuff we could use.
The scenes about Denver Smith and Leonard Brown’s killings at Southern University feature interviews with student leaders alongside Baton Rouge police and former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards justifying their actions in quelling student unrest. This is similar to how you incorporated LAPD members’ perspectives in one of your last films, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” when discussing its siege on a Panther house. Why is it important to you to incorporate those opposing perspectives when investigating such a painful event?
I think it’s really important as a filmmaker to get all sides of an issue. It gets you that much more involved to hear the governor talk about why he did what he did, or the officer talk about seeing someone pick up a tear gas canister and throw it back at police. As an audience member, you don’t feel like this is all one-sided. It’s always exciting to hear from people on both sides, and to hear from students, law enforcement and the governor about one incident makes [the documentary] that much richer.
“Tell Them We Are Rising” juxtaposes many HBCUs’ founding on racist ideas of educating a subservient Black workforce with legacies of incubating student activism. But even now, administrators at Dillard University and Talladega College face criticism for engaging with anti-Black politics. How do you see HBCUs reacting to this political moment?
I think HBCUs, by and large, have been pretty clear on who they serve, which is the African-American population. And look, colleges and universities don’t usually make statements about what’s going on in the world. You don’t know what Harvard or Howard think about Trump; that’s not what they do. We unfortunately couldn’t get into this because of time, but during the Civil Rights and sit-in movements, the colleges were very supportive of the students most of the time. [Many] Black colleges did not expel student activists. Some of the public institutions did expel people during the Freedom Rides, but private Black colleges did not ban students and individual professors were supportive. Hopefully that’s what will happen now. Trump can always find a marching band from a Black school for his inauguration, someone’s got to do it. But the African-American community’s very clear on where they stand, and I think Black colleges aren’t ambiguous about where they’ll stand in the coming four years.
“Tell Them We Are Rising” premiered today at the Sundance Film Festival and will publicly air on PBS in October. Visit the film’s website to learn about screenings and events as they’re announced.