Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities

Director: Stanley Nelson

USA, 2017, 85 minutes, DCP


Presented by: Stanley Nelson

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Distributor: Firelight Films

Program Notes

American history starts with the fear of educating black Americans; it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write. The story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) sweeps through almost 200 hundred years of this history, and is the single most important statement against the historic American notion that any education of black Americans was unnecessary and probably dangerous. Stanley Nelson is one of the most important filmmakers working today, and he has told this epic American story in a way that is both fascinating and revealing.

The HBCUs were created because there were no other options for black students who wanted a higher education. Even as formal segregation ended, astonishing obstacles remained in white majority universities—there is an incredible image in the film of a black PhD candidate’s desk at the University of Oklahoma, in the hall outside the white classroom. Though most HBCUs have always been open to white students, the film shows how important it has been, to individual students and to our political evolution, to have centers of higher learning that are black majority.

As America continues to evolve, the future for HBCUs is less clear. Nelson addresses current challenges for HBCUs, by showing us closed buildings on multiple campuses that underscore current financial pressure. But the beat of the film literally comes from HBCU marching bands, and the contemporary pride expressed by current students and parents is persuasive. The future of HBCUs may be unknown, but Nelson eloquently shows us their glorious role in American history. (Jed Dietz)