June 20, 2024

Beyond Resilience Masterclass: Making Music Docs that Sing

On Thursday, June 20, from 4-5 p.m. ET, in celebration of Juneteenth and Black Music Month, Firelight Media hosted a Beyond Resilience Masterclass on YouTube Live featuring the filmmakers behind some of the most lauded Black music documentaries of the decade.

Accessibility Notice: This event included live ASL interpretation and closed captions.


Moderator Leah Smith (Producer, Luther: Never Too Much) was joined by legendary filmmaker Stanley Nelson (Director, Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool and the forthcoming Make it Funky: The History of Funk), producer Lisa Cortes (Director/Producer, Little Richard: I Am Everything), and Melissa Haizlip (Director/Producer, Satisfied, Mr. Soul!) to dive into their experience creating complex, rich, and nuanced films about Black recording artists. The event was introduced by Marcia Smith, co-founder and president of Firelight Media.

Black culture has always engendered and shaped American culture. But it’s Black music and musicians, specifically, that have set the cultural agenda – (re)inventing genres, setting and breaking sales records, and commanding stages. With such prestige attached to Black artists and their careers, what are the creative and practical challenges of making documentary films about them? What can filmmakers learn about working with artists and their estates, music labels (who often own the music rights), and distributors to create accurate and entertaining portraits of these stars? And crucially, how are today’s most talented Black filmmakers retaining their distinct creative voice on projects often heavily influenced by other stakeholders?

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The Beyond Resilience Series is sponsored by Open Society Foundations. Beyond Resilience is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Field of Vision.

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Participant Bios:

Leah Smith is a seasoned filmmaker with nearly 25 years of experience in the media industry. She began her career at CNN news, contributing to the launch of "Anderson Cooper 360.” During her time there, Leah covered significant events like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and various presidential elections, earning two news Emmys for her coverage of the Haiti earthquake. In 2013, she received another News and Documentary Emmy for her work on "Kids on Race: the Hidden Picture", a documentary commissioned by CNN. Transitioning to NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt, Leah continued her focus on impactful storytelling. Currently, she's deep into her third collaboration with Trilogy Films under the guidance of the esteemed documentarian (and Firelight Doc Lab Alim), Dawn Porter. Leah's latest producing credit is on Luther: Never Too Much, which was just acquired by CNN Films. 

Emmy-winning director and producer Lisa Cortes generates bold, explosive art that shines light on important stories hidden from view. Cortés launched her early career as a music executive at the iconic Def Jam label and Rush Artist Management; she also was VP of Artist & Repertoire at Mercury Records, and founded the Loose Cannon label. As a filmmaker, she’s directed and produced Little Richard: I Am Everything (CNN Films), which had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, and was nominated for 26 awards, including a Grammy nomination for best music film. Under Cortes Filmworks, Lisa has also directed and produced The Space Race for NatGeo, and she’s produced Invisible Beauty and the Apollo. Cortés also executive produced Precious (2009) which was nominated for six Academy Awards® and won two. Lisa is a member of the Documentary Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Director’s Guild of America. She serves on the Boards of Film at Lincoln Center; Independent Television Services (ITVS); the Trajal Harrell Dance Company; Women Make Movies and the DGA Focus on Women Committee.

As a Peabody Award-winning, Emmy-nominated producer, director and writer, Melissa Haizlip’s work has been featured on Netflix, HBO Max, Peacock, CNN, PBS, and E!. Her work responds to pressing social issues at the intersection of racial justice, social justice, activism, and representation. Melissa received the NAACP Image Award + 2020 Critics Choice Award for her film Mr. SOUL! (MAX) which premiered at Tribeca, and was Oscar-shortlisted. She’s also been  a Co-Executive Producer of LADIES FIRST: A STORY OF WOMEN IN HIP-HOP (Netflix), and an Executive Producer of BLACK POP: CELEBRATING THE POWER OF BLACK CULTURE (Peacock). Her film SATISFIED, which she directed for Steven Spielberg, premiered at Tribeca 2024.

Stanley Nelson is the foremost chronicler of the African American experience working in nonfiction film today. His documentary films, many of which have aired on PBS, combine compelling narratives with rich and deeply researched historical detail, shining new light on both familiar and under-explored aspects of the American past. A MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, Nelson was awarded a Peabody for his body of work in 2016. He has received numerous honors over the course of his career, including the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts Sciences. In 2013, President Barack Obama presented Nelson with the National Medal in the Humanities. Nelson’s award-winning films include Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, which offers a definitive look at the life and career of the iconic Miles Davis and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019, marking his tenth premiere at the prestigious festival – the most premieres of any documentary filmmaker. The film also won two Emmy® Awards at the 42nd Annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards and was nominated for Best Music Film at the 62nd Grammy Awards. His latest music documentary Make It Funky: The History of Funk, is forthcoming on PBS' Independent Lens.

July 18, 2024

The Power of the BIPOC Producer | Beyond Resilience

Join Firelight Media and the Documentary Producers Alliance on YouTube Live for a conversation about the power of BIPOC producers.

June 20, 2024

Beyond Resilience Masterclass: Making Music Docs that Sing

Firelight Media hosted a Beyond Resilience Masterclass with filmmakers behind some of the most lauded Black music documentaries of the decade.

May 10, 2024

Filming with Family | Beyond Resilience x CAAMFest Filmmaker Summit 2024

Join Firelight Media's Beyond Resilience series at CAAMFest Filmmaker Summit in San Francisco.

March 7, 2024

Interrogating the Festival to Awards Pipeline | Beyond Resilience

Firelight Media and Distribution Advocates hosted a conversation about navigating the festival to awards pipeline for documentary filmmakers.

January 25, 2024

The Optics of Islam | Beyond Resilience

A conversation with filmmakers and scholars about Muslim and MENASA representation.

December 7, 2023

The Documentary System is Broken. Now What? | Beyond Resilience

How can we band together to (re)build a system that will ensure independent filmmakers can thrive?

November 1, 2023

Palestinian Voices | Beyond Resilience

Beyond Resilience, with support from Field of Vision, is proud to be a community partner for the Arab Film & Media Institute's 'Palestinian Voices' program.

November 15, 2023

Navigating the Ethical and Business Landscape of Artificial Intelligence | Beyond Resilience

A conversation about the evolution of artificial intelligence and its impact on documentary filmmaking, presented with DOC NYC PRO.


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