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30 for 30

Stanley Nelson discusses his 30 for 30 documentary on Michael Vick

The filmmaker shares his latest offering, on the fall and divisive return of one of the NFL’s most polarizing talents

Stanley Nelson has long been recognized as one of the most prolific documentary filmmakers of the black experience in America.

With subjects ranging from Madame C.J. Walker to The Freedom Riders, from The Black Press to Emmitt Till, from Marcus Garvey to The Black Panthers and a host of others, he’s spent over 40 years crafting compelling narratives of African American individuals and institutions maneuvering their way through the muddy waters of injustice, racism and other societal ills with a signature, almost poetic style that at turns educates, enrages, and inspires.

His latest project is a two-episode 30 for 30 ESPN Films documentary on Michael Vick. Part one airs on Jan. 30 and part two on Feb. 6. The film chronicles the remarkable rise, fall and divisive return of one of the NFL’s most polarizing talents.

The Undefeated sat down with Nelson to discuss his work, what resonates with him as a filmmaker and his latest offering in “Vick.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did Michael Vick’s story appeal to you?

As a filmmaker, his story resonated with me because it’s so complex. It’s not just a rise and fall. It’s more than that and allows us to talk about other things besides football. There’s the idea of African American quarterbacks throughout history, the look at what sports means to kids from impoverished backgrounds, the difference in the lens through which African Americans and white Americans look at the whole dogfighting incident and Mike’s prison sentence, and more.

It’s a classic American story. Sports is a part of all of our lives, it’s a part of who we are as a larger society. It allowed me to talk about other things within the context of this one-man story. That’s what storytelling is about. It’s not, “this is what happened day-to-day” to Michael Vick, or The Freedom Riders or Marcus Garvey or The Black Panthers. It’s about, what’s the bigger story behind all of this and how does that reflect on who we are?

When you were growing up, who were the athletes that you gravitated to outside the lines of victory and defeat?

Quarterback Michael Vick of Virginia Tech holds up an Atlanta Falcons jersey after being picked No. 1 at the NFL draft in New York, in this April 21, 2001 file photo.

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

When I was a teenager, Muhammad Ali was in his prime. I remember them talking on the news about him being the most recognized face in the world. He took a stand for what he believed in and paid a price. It was an example of a sports figure standing up and becoming something much larger outside of the athletic arena. And there were others like Jim Brown.

There’s a musical, cadenced heartbeat and rhythm that seems to flow through your work. Growing up in New York City, give me a sense of the music that influenced you and when you realized that you were a storyteller.

Our music was the music of the radio, Motown and Stax Records. I remember discovering black radio and saying, “Wow, this is something different.” My mother and father were big jazz fans, so jazz was playing all the time in our house.

I had no idea that I would be a storyteller. Like most of the guys growing up in my neighborhood, I wanted to play in the NBA. I had no idea that I’d be working in some type of artistic medium until I went to college and fell into a film class.

You were once an aspiring director with no interest in making documentaries.

Yeah, I went to film school and was not interested, nor did I know anything about documentary films. The only ones I saw were boring films with a British narrator droning on and on. That’s all I knew. I had no aspirations to be a documentary filmmaker.

At what point did your passion align with moving in that direction?

A friend and I wandered into a film called “The Murder of Fred Hampton,” about the Black Panther leader. It had a real opinion and was not trying to be objective. It blew us away. That started to change my life.

Coming out of film school, I happened to get a job with a documentary company and worked for a guy named William Greaves. He was one of the first African Americans who had his own documentary film company. I just wandered into his office and lucked up on a job. That’s how I got started, working for him.

Talk about the impact that Melvin Van Peebles groundbreaking 1971 film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” had on you.

Sweetback was amazing because it was just so different. It was a film by an African American that was simply uncompromising. You just knew that he had done this film himself. It didn’t look like a Hollywood film.

It made me realize that there were ways that you could get this done. If you struggled but knew what you were doing, there were ways to get it done with less money. And Sweetback was really popular. Not only did he do it, but he did it and it was successful.

In the process of making “Vick,” what surprised you the most?

One of the things you see in the film is that there’s a through-line to Michael Vick’s life and it all kind of makes sense. One thing we realized early on is that where Mike is from, Newport News, Virginia, was going to be a major character in the film. A lot of how his story unfolded traces back to Newport News, to his friendships and wanting to do the right things for and by his friends. That’s something we respect and honor as a culture, and it’s a central theme in the story.

The timing of this story is impeccable when you look at the season that Lamar Jackson had, and what Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson and others have achieved in recent years. Some don’t comprehend the historical significance of Vick’s legacy as the first African American quarterback to be selected with the NFL’s first overall draft pick.

Not only was it significant that he was a black quarterback taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the entire draft, but it’s also significant in light of the way he played. The decision that was made by the Atlanta Falcons was that this style can win. Ten years prior, he would have been switched to defensive back, running back or wide receiver. We’re seeing his impact come to fruition with this current generation of black quarterbacks.

And it will continue this way, this emphasis on having more athletic quarterbacks. Vick was at the vanguard of that and we’re going to see more and more of it.

Looking through your work, there’s a vacillation between the celebratory and the melancholy. What aspect of this film had you feeling melancholy?

You can’t help feeling melancholy about the fact that Mike was involved in dogfighting, to the public’s reaction toward him in the aftermath and that he spent almost two years in prison. I also feel sad that his career was cut short. Who knows what he could have been had he handled things differently.

What would you say to people who are still adamantly yelling that Vick is nothing more than a dog killer, people who are opposed to watching this film?

I hope we all believe in some sort of redemption, because we all make mistakes. And if anybody is a representative of redemption, it’s Mike. But if you want to watch the film and hate him more, you’re welcome to do that.

What did it say about him, his personality, his style of play, that allowed him to elevate to such early stardom as an American icon that transcended racial boundaries.

He was such a unique talent. You wanted to watch him on TV regardless of who his team was playing against because he was simply breathtaking. Every time you watched him, you saw something new. He was the athletic embodiment of Jazz and hip-hop, his improvisation on the big stage took the game to a level it hadn’t been to before.

Alejandro Danois is the author of The Boys of Dunbar: A Story of Love, Hope and Basketball. He is also a journalist, cultural critic and film producer. He taught his dog, Teddy Pendergrass Danois, to say “I love you.” When he’s not working or watching sports, he can be found on a dance floor or at a Karaoke near you belting out Alexander O’Neal’s “If You Were Here Tonight”.