Stanley Nelson: His Oak Bluffs Story Will Air on Public TV

By JESSIE ROYCE HILL

Early in A Place of Our Own, Stanley Nelson's documentary about the African-American community on the Vineyard, his father states that "we didn't come to Martha's Vineyard, we came to Oak Bluffs."

In the 1940s and 1950s, as demands for racial equality brewed in a national cauldron, the town of Oak Bluffs served as a quiet haven for a group of African Americans. This is a story of black upward mobility, set against a backdrop of the segregation of the times, that the Emmy-award winning film director tells in A Place of Our Own. The documentary will air nationally on PBS on Tuesday, Feb. 17. Mr. Nelson hopes to screen it at an Oak Bluffs theatre this summer.

Photo

Through rare photographs and home movie footage of black families arriving on the ferry, frolicking with children on the beach and sipping cocktails at lawn parties, Mr. Nelson paints a picture of a seemingly idyllic summer community. But for the more modest designs of the bathing suits and the sweeping hairstyles of the sixties, this could be today, and in some senses it still is.

Through Mr. Nelson's soft lens, Oak Bluffs is a place of leisure, a place where, he says, "African Americans can go to be themselves," free of the strains of class and race consciousness that hovered in their hometowns and cities. A place where "it's okay to play tennis here. All the black people did!" A place where friendships and courtships are nurtured and sustained.

Telling the story of the growth of this tightly knit community became for Mr. Nelson a personal tale. His mother, the matriarch of the Nelson summer home overlooking Ocean Park, died last year, making last summer the first he and his siblings visited the house without her, and this is described in the documentary.

He didn't intend at the beginning for it to be a personal film, but Mr. Nelson recalled this week that "I found that to really tell the story, I had to put myself and my family in the middle of it."

The director met his wife, screenwriter Marcia A. Smith, in Oak Bluffs. The town is also the place where Mr. Nelson's family was happiest, and later, where trouble undermined the summer ease, leading to his parents' divorce and tension between his siblings. The absence of his sister, the writer Jill Nelson, also a seasonal resident, is particularly poignant. She prefers to visit their summer house when her brother is not in it, and declined to be interviewed in the film.

Photo

Mr. Nelson, a MacArthur Fellow who has for 20 years made documentaries for television about historical figures like Emmett Till and Marcus Garvey, as well as lesser known American artists and soldiers, had not turned the camera on himself before.

The result is an intimate family portrait with strong undercurrents of loss, both personal and communal. As Mr. Nelson strolls the beach talking with his estranged father, whom he's invited to join him in Oak Bluffs for the first time in many years, talk turns to what their life - and their town - once looked like.

During the summertime work week off-Island, African-American men shouldered the burden of what the elder Mr. Nelson calls "representing the race"; but on summer weekends, "We looked like we owned the world."

A Place of Our Own calls into question those halcyon days and places, at the same time as it is nostalgic for them. Several Island notables, including Henry Louis Gates Jr., Manning Marable, Lani Guinier and Isabelle Powell, weigh in on the community to which they belong. They talk about the expansion of the black middle class and raise important questions about how a community can stay grounded as it becomes more privileged. Indeed, they ask, should it even be expected to?

Mr. Nelson said that audiences at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah last month, where the documentary was shown, expressed some surprise at seeing Oak Bluffs' growth from a modest vacation spot to a venue for powerhouse networking. But of course this shift has taken place in all six towns on the Island, since the Clintons began visiting in the early 1990s and, some say, before.

Photo

Across the Vineyard, both black and white families build ever-bigger houses, park ever-bigger cars in their driveways, cater their cocktail parties and tile their floors with increasing extravagance. The boundaries that once defined these communities, racial and otherwise, have begun to blur.

For Mr. Nelson's part, he seems ambivalent on the subject of this upscaling. How much is too much? "I think you should build what you want to build," he said. "You can say that Oak Bluffs used to be a stronger community and that it's slowly eroding. But you can say the black community was more vibrant during segregation. Do I want to go back to segregation? No."

Perhaps the economic disparities between black and white communities on the Vineyard are less pronounced now, as is true among wealthier blacks and whites in towns across America. "But there is still isolation in the black upper-middle class," says Mr. Nelson. "There is still a need for Oak Bluffs. I come here in August with my 14-year-old and my five-year-old twins. It's a good meeting ground. It's our home."