Skip to main content

Northwestern faculty direct, inform PBS film on historically black colleges and universities

Award-winning documentary and nominated fiction film director Marco Williams teaches screenwriting and directing at NU-Q.
Award-winning documentary and nominated fiction film director Marco Williams teaches screenwriting and directing at NU-Q.

EVANSTON - Northwestern University faculty members played a large role in the creation of the upcoming film, “Tell Them We Are Rising,” which premieres tonight, Feb. 19, and tells the rich story of America’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). 

The film’s co-director and co-producer is Marco Williams, an award-winning filmmaker who recently became a professor in the School of Communication, Department of Radio, Television and Film, and is working now as Professor in Residence at Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q).

The important documentary premieres on “Independent Lens” on PBS tonight at 9 p.m. CDT and recounts the pivotal role that HBCUs have played in shaping American history, culture and identity over the last 150 years. That role underscores the power of higher education to transform lives and advance civil rights and equality in the face of injustice. 

Northwestern Provost Jonathan Holloway, who was dean of Yale College when he advised the filmmakers and was interviewed on camera for the film, provides strong context and insight to this critical story in American history. As a professor and author, Holloway specializes on post-emancipation U.S. history with a focus on social and intellectual history. He currently is working on a new book, “A History of Absence: Race and the Making of the Modern World.”

Martha Biondi, professor of African American studies and history in Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, also is in the film, and her research informed Williams’ work in researching, producing and directing the documentary.

Jabbar Bennett, associate provost and chief diversity officer at Northwestern and a graduate of two Historically Black Colleges and Universities, is working to help stage a screening of the film on campus at 5 p.m. March 7 at the McCormick Foundation Center.

“The conversation that I hope viewers have after viewing the film is to consider the contribution of HBCUs to the creation of the American democracy,” explained Williams. “HBCUs are the engines of American democracy.

“These institutions, in the education of African-Americans, activate what it means to be American,” he added. “I was invested in telling this story because I am committed to highlighting the fact that African American history is American history.” 

The documentary premiers during Black History Month and at a time when Northwestern’s Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion (OIDI) is helping host a year-long series of events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bursar’s Office Takeover in 1968.

On May 3, 1968, more than 100 undergraduate and graduate students occupied the bursar's office in the first major sit-in at Northwestern. This peaceful 36-hour occupation ended with University leaders committing to enhance services and support for Black students related to admissions, scholarships, housing, curriculum, counseling and facilities -- which led to the creation of the African American Studies Department and the establishment of the Black House. 

Williams joined the NU-Q faculty this semester in Doha, Qatar, and he has spoken there about the film and its impact. Williams will teach courses on documentary filmmaking and screenwriting at NU-Q. 

Writing from Qatar, Williams described the importance of his film, “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” in educating the wider public and raising awareness and understanding of the impact of HBCUs on American history. 

“For a large swath of the people living in the U.S., the four letters -- HBCU -- are unfamiliar,” he said. “This film, through the narrating of American history, will ensure the awareness of the significance to the formation of America that these institutions of higher learning and the thousands upon thousands of alumni have made to America.” 

Williams observed, “People often ask, ‘Is there a need for HBCUs?’ I always answer: Why don’t we ask, ‘Is there a need for PWIs (predominantly White institutions)?’ This answer, coupled with the viewing of the film, provides the most salient understanding of the significance and the value of these essential institutions to the creation of America.

“The greatest challenge in creating this film, for me, was which parts of the 150-year history to tell. We were allotted only 90 minutes, which means that many an important story related to the over 100 institutions involved are not included in the final film.” 

Williams said he was most proud of the Southern University section of the film, which he said he learned about reading Northwestern Professor Martha Biondi’s book “The Black Revolution on Campus.”

“Few Americans are aware of the number of instances in which African-American students protested, were brutalized by the police and were killed for the act of standing up to challenge the system,” he explained. “When I learned of these stories, I knew that they had to be in our film.” 

Williams noted that he was equally compelled by the story of Howard University Law School and its role in the dismantling of segregation in the United States. 

“This change, ultimately, has had a marked effect on HBCUs,” Williams said. “Now black students have more options for where to attend college than they did prior to the 1960s. Now black scholars and academics have more options on where to teach. This is similar to the impact that desegregation had on black communities -- many great black middle-class neighborhoods declined once blacks could shop wherever they wanted. HBCUs have been affected. A Pyrrhic victory, of sorts?

“I would hope that the film inspires Americans to take pride in these institutions -- to talk about them with friends, co-workers, children and others,” Williams said. “I’d welcome conversations about Booker T. Washington verses W.E.B. Dubois; I would hope some would say ‘I heard of Kent State, but I didn’t know about Southern University, Vorhees, Orangeburg, Howard and all of the other HBCUs that were involved in student protest and were met with violent response from the police.’”

About the film

Tell Them We Are Rising,” which premieres on Independent Lens on PBS tonight, Feb. 19 at 9 p.m. CDT [check local listings], covers the rich history of America’s HBCUs from before the end of slavery through a flourishing in the 20th century to today, and how they profoundly influenced the course of the nation for over 150 years. It’s a story that remains largely unknown, yet timely, and so directors Stanley Nelson (“Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution”) and Marco Williams (“Two Towns of Jasper,” “Banished”) set out to tell that potentially epic history in a breezy, entertaining but intimate style. It also involves a lot of research and archival film and photographs to add to the power and “elegantly condenses a miniseries’ worth of history into a streamlined feature,” wrote Sheri Linden in The Hollywood Reporter. “A robust and stirring capsule history.”

Editor's Picks

Back to top