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Nelson George is a novelist, cultural critic, and filmmaker. After receiving his degree from St. John's University in 1982, George first worked for New York's Amsterdam News, later becoming an[…]

George still remembers the KKK jokes.

Question: How have race relations changed in your lifetime?

Nelson George: Well race relations have changed profoundly. I mean I came up in the . . . I came of age in the early ‘60s as a child. And I remember going down South to stay with my cousins in the early ‘60s in Virginia, and you know them making jokes kind of about the KKK coming to get me. They’d kind of make me scared. They were trying to scare the city kid. But there was, you know . . . It was Virginia in the ‘60s and the Civil Rights Movement was still very alive. There was lots and lots of stuff going on. I remember the night Dr. King was assassinated vividly. I remember watching ABC News in our kitchen on a black and white TV, and seeing news reports about a shooting in Memphis. The kind of opportunities that I’ve had are totally unprecedented because I came up with the right generation. I always remember . . . I’m a big fan of Richard Wright, and you know to make Black . . . to make Native Son into a movie, he actually snuck down . . . He had to go to Buenos Aires and shoot the damn film in Buenos Aires. And he actually ended up __________ totally miscast. So he had to sneak around. James Baldwin wrote many, many Hollywood screen plays, none of which got made. So the access to visual . . . to TV and film that my generation has, none of these genius people had, not one. So I’m very aware of how amazing it is in the history of America that I can make a movie about my sister and have it distributed, you know, by one of the biggest, you know, television media companies in the world. That’s unbelievable. So I’m very grateful and aware of the change. To me that’s how I . . . There’s different ways to go about it, but the fact that we can do this stuff . . . that we can have the Russell Simmons, and the Spike Lees, and the Denzels, and the Will Smiths, and everyone takes for granted that we have these big stars. And not only these big stars, but they basically have a lot of latitude to do a lot of what they wanna do, and be entrepreneurs and all this stuff, and be celebrated for all this stuff. You know I have Sydney Poitier, and my mother used to take me to see Sydney Poitier movies because he was sort of the guy that, you know . . . who was consistently in movies. And there were odd people . . . Ossie Davis here, and Sammy Davis there, and Pearl Bailey was on TV. But these are like fleeting moments on the Ed Sullivan show or, you know, something like that. It wasn’t a wave. It wasn’t consistent. And it certainly didn’t have . . . They didn’t have a lot of control over their expression. So I’m 50. Spike’s 50. Russell Simmons is 50, which means we were all basically born in ’57. We came up through the ‘60s and the ‘70s. We were sort of learning our way as teenagers. The ‘80s was really a watershed in terms of media. You know that’s when Oprah started. That’s Michael Jackson. That’s Prince. That’s the Cosby Show. That’s a lot of hip hop stuff. Then Denzel’s career. Almost all the Black filmmakers – Spike . . . That era when you look back – August Wilson began writing his plays then. You look at that, wow! And I’m part of that group that came through there. So in terms of media, there’s no question that it’s been a remarkable progress. And I think a lot of people will say, “Well there hasn’t been enough progress.” Well there hasn’t been enough progress. But in terms of where we were when I . . . I mean the stuff that I’m doing now was inconceivable when I left college in 1979. I mean we could’ve wanted to do it, but the fact is there were no real role models for any of this stuff. And hopefully that’s what we’re doing now.