Film : A summer where black living is easy
Award-winning documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson brings to life his many Oak Bluffs summers in "A Place of Our Own." The Martha's Vineyard Film Society in turn will pay tribute to him and to black history by screening this heartwarming, thoughtful film on Friday, February 12.
"Swim," a lively mixed-media short about life in segregated Atlantic Beach, S.C., accompanies the Nelson film. Co-director Jon Goldman of Woods Hole will attend the screening.
One of many celebrated African-Americans who summer on the Vineyard, Mr. Nelson is a 2002 MacArthur fellow. He won an Emmy in 1988 for his "American Experience" documentary on Emmett Till. He is known for films that explore historical aspects of black culture, including "The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords," "Marcus Garvey: Look at Me in the Whirlwind" and "Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise Your Voice."
Mr. Nelson delves into more personal territory in "A Place of Our Own." Growing up privileged in New York City with a volatile father, Stanley Sr., who became one of the first black dentists in the city, and a much-loved mother, Alelia (Liel), he found escape through his Oak Bluffs summers from the sense of alienation that being black in America often brings with it.
The film incorporates still photos and home movie footage, as well as interviews with current summer residents, to describe what those vacations from the late 1950s through the 60s were like. "A Place of Our Own" tracks not just the Nelson family but life in general for upper middleclass blacks who summer on Martha's Vineyard -- particularly in Oak Bluffs.
Mr. Nelson describes how his father bought their landmark house on the corner of Sea View and Ocean Avenues. His mother Liel held court on the expansive house's glassed-in porch and was always the last person left on the dance floor, but Dr. Nelson struggled with the rage he felt over American racism.
Dr. Nelson recounts to his son how growing up in Washington, D.C., where white people would get up and move if he sat next to them on the trolley, embittered him. His response was to fight for the social rights he felt he and his family deserved. "I, a negro, wanted to own waterfront property on Martha's Vineyard," he explains.
Six months after buying the Oak Bluffs mansion, Dr. Nelson divorced his wife Liel. Dr. Nelson gave up dentistry to become a transcendental meditation teacher, a politician and a model, a change along with the divorce he felt necessary for his survival. The four Nelson children, who include Lynn, Ralph and Jill, a prize-winning author and journalist, as well as Stanley, continued to spend their summers in Oak Bluffs with their mother.
The filming of "A Place of Our Own," which aired on PBS's "Independent Lens" in 2004, came some six months after the death of the family's matriarch. Already riven by the parents' divorce many years earlier, the Nelson family fell apart after Liel died.
Although his relationship with his father had been fractured by the divorce, Mr. Nelson invited his father to spend the summer in Oak Bluffs, living with his son while the film was made.
The filmmaker supplements his family's story with richly textured interviews from other blacks who summer on the Island. Included are my own neighbors the Dowdell sisters who, in contrast to some other families who built new showpiece houses, have chosen to keep their own an intact replica of an Oak Bluff cottage from an earlier era.
Today, prominent black Americans like Lani Guinier and Henry Louis Gates Jr. pass the summer months on the Island. While the black elite comes to network and young adult blacks sometimes take over the beach on weekends, Mr. Nelson remembers leading a simpler life - fishing, biking, and going to the beach. He points out the importance of having black friends rather than predominant white, or, as his father prefers, "Caucasian." As the child of an affluent black family, he often found himself the only black in some social settings.
In one scene, it is stunning to hear the distinguished scholar Dr. Gates explain how he was terrified that the Lexington police might think he didn't actually own a house in an otherwise all-white neighborhood. He visited the local police station to be sure they understood. This was long before the incident with the police at his home in Cambridge, which caused a furor and led to a meeting with President Obama.
Black culture makes important contributions to Martha's Vineyard, and "A Place of Our Own" helps explain what being a black summer person is like. Using still photographs and hand-drawn as well as computer-generated animation, the accompanying short film, "Swim," was inspired by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute marine biologist Dr. Jerald Ambrose's childhood reminiscences of growing up summers, in a segregated South Carolina.
"A Place of Our Own" and "Swim," Friday, Feb. 12, 7:30 p.m. at the Katharine Cornell Theatre, 54 Spring St., Vineyard Haven. Tickets $8 ($5 for MVFS members). Doors open at 7 p.m. Visit www.mvfilmsociety.com.