Firelight Media’s Documentary Lab Is Looking for Diverse Stories

By N. Jamiyla Chisholm May 07, 2019

In 2000, when award-winning writer and MacArthur Fellow Stanley Nelson and philanthropy executive Marcia Smith launched Firelight Media, they sought to address the film industry’s lack of urgency around producing films made by and about people of color. Keeping the fire lit as it moves into its second decade, the organization announced yesterday (May 6) that it is accepting submissions to its Documentary Lab program.

The Documentary Lab, which Nelson launched in 2008, is an 18-month fellowship that provides one-on-one mentoring, networking resources and financial support for up-and-coming filmmakers of color as they work on projects from conception to completion. To help diversify the financial playing field, Firelight Media’s Next Step Media Fund offers fellows up to $25,000 for travel, shooting and editing to lessen the blow of final production money woes. The deadline for all submissions is June 17.

The organization has produced more than 25 hours of primetime programming for public television and had its first theatrical release in 2015 with “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.” Nevertheless, Firelight knows there’s still more work to do, per this emailed statement:


A lot has changed since we first started the Documentary Lab ten years ago. Documentaries have become popular, the number of distribution platforms have doubled, and almost everyone agrees that we are experiencing the golden age of documentaries. … Yet, there are still structural barriers for filmmakers of color to enter into the field. Ten years later we remain steadfast in our belief in the importance of people of color being able to tell their own stories. The Documentary Lab Open Call is an exciting time for us at Firelight because it puts us in direct contact with hundreds of emerging filmmakers of color from all over the U.S. telling nuanced and complex stories informed by their own lived experiences.

This year, the Lab made its presence known at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where fellows Jeffrey Palmer (“Words from a Bear”) and Jackie Olive (“Always in Season”) premiered their films and where “Always in Season” won the Special Jury Award for Moral Urgency. Nelson also debuted his tenth feature, “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool,” at the festival—a record for a documentarian. And at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, Doc Lab fellow Yu Gu premiered her feature “A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem.”