Two days after Starbucks experienced a publicity nightmare when a video went viral that showed two black men being arrested in a Philadelphia store when a manager called the police, the company announced that it would shut down its stores on May 29 for racial-bias training. A few weeks later, Starbucks hired filmmaker Stanley Nelson, the founder of Firelight Media and the director of acclaimed documentaries, Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities, to make a film for its training session.
On Tuesday, that film, The Story of Access, was shown to hundreds of thousands of Starbucks employees around the nation. We talked to Nelson about his experience working on the film, and what he hopes its impact will be.
Fast Company: Did you have any reservations about working for Starbucks after the Philadelphia incident?
Stanley Nelson: No. I felt from the beginning that them closing down was more than most people were doing. And the more I heard from them, I felt like this was a sincere effort. I was given a lot of leeway to make something that I thought would move people, that let people talk about their experiences and say something we hadn’t heard before.
FC: You weren’t worried about being used for some well-oiled PR swing?
SN: Not at all. Just the opposite. It was bulky and hairy and everybody saying, ‘We’ve got to do this but what is this and how do we do it?’ Pretty early on, I went off in my own direction, so I wasn’t part of the minute-by-minute planning of what they were going to do. I wanted to do the film and it did what they wanted it to do, which was to start a conversation, not offer solutions.
FC: What did you hope viewers might take away from the film?
SN: I wanted people to hear that we all have these different experiences in these public spaces, and we don’t talk about what our experiences are. I was shocked when the white guy [who’s interviewed in the film] said that he’s never experienced discrimination in his life. I had literally never thought that there are people who don’t understand what that is. African-Americans and women—that’s something that we deal with constantly. That guy was a really nice guy, but he doesn’t deal with that. Life is hard for everybody, but at least he doesn’t have that.
FC: Have any of your filmmaker friends ribbed you for working for Starbucks?
SN: [laughs] I mean, there’s a certain sense of that, yeah. But it’s not like I’m looking to do a car commercial next. This was something I could get behind and be proud to be a part of.
FC: I hope they paid you a lot of money.
SN: Ha! Free Starbucks for the rest of my life.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.