Firelight Media Spotlights Missing Stories from American Life

Firelight Media Spotlights Missing Stories from American Life 1

Civil rights activists making plans in 1961 to join Freedom Riders in the South. (From the film Freedom Riders)


Firelight Media Spotlights Missing Stories from American Life 2

Marcia Smith is President of Firelight Media. Marcia co-founded Firelight in 2000, and led the organization for the next eight years. Prior to returning to Firelight in 2012, she served as Senior Vice President at The Atlantic Philanthropies, a multi-billion dollar charitable foundation active in seven countries from South Africa to Vietnam. 

Among other awards, Smith has received a Primetime Emmy nomination and the Writers’ Guild Award for Documentary Writing for The Murder of Emmett Till.  She was honored with a Muse Award from New York Women in Film & Television and the Trailblazer Award from the African-American Women’s Film Organization, Reel Sisters of the Diaspora. Smith’s book Black America: A Photographic Journey, Past to Present was published in 2003.  

“I have fond memories of BMC, including Sis’s breakfasts, the autumn leaves around the lake, and getting whupped by Ben Strader in speed Scrabble,” Smith recalls.



Writer and philanthropy executive Marcia Smith launched Firelight Media with MacArthur “genius” Fellow and filmmaker Stanly Nelson in 2000 to address the deficit of films made by and about diverse communities, particularly people of color. Based in Harlem, NY, the organization has gone on to produce over 25 hours of primetime programming for public television, receive every major broadcast award, and have its first theatrical release in 2015 (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution), which later broke records for broadcast viewership, streaming, and social media when it appeared on PBS.

Over 18 years, Firelight has established a track record of producing contemporary and historical social-issue documentaries as well as developing diverse storytellers and audiences. Firelight is committed to making films about pivotal events, movements, and people in American history, including the  award-winning films  Freedom Riders, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, The Murder of Emmett Till, A Place of Our Own,  Freedom Summer and Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities.

In 2014, Firelight Media was honored with the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions, known as the MacArthur Genius Award for organizations.

Firelight Media Spotlights Missing Stories from American Life
Black Panther members rally in West Oakland to press for the release of leader Huey Newton from jail..  (From the film The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.)

Through Documentary Lab and other programs supporting artists, Firelight is  dedicated to developing talented documentary filmmakers that advance underrepresented stories, moving them from the margins to the forefront of mainstream media through high quality, powerful productions. Films emerging from the Documentary Lab have premiered at Sundance, MoMA, Tribeca, Hot Docs, and other prestigious festivals. Many have aired nationally on PBS and commercial cable platforms.

Firelight  is one of only a handful of media organizations that has a permanent engagement division.  By collaborating with local and national organizations that are committed to a range of social justice issues, Firelight’s work supports contemporary organizing efforts.

Firelight Media’s Impact Producer Fellowship,  launched in February 2017, is the first-ever training program dedicated to mentoring and training impact producers of color. This yearlong fellowship is rooted in a core belief that  providing social change activists with training on media strategy and impact, and connecting them with diverse storytellers, can catalyze new narratives about vulnerable populations and help fuel change.

Impact Producers work alongside filmmakers to produce campaigns that maximize the reach and impact of films. These professionals are increasingly sought-after by filmmakers seeking to develop sophisticated campaigns around their social issue documentaries, yet this new field currently lacks the diverse representation needed to ensure the impact strategies resonate with the communities they seek to support. Firelight’s Impact Producer Fellowship aims to intervene in the field by infusing it with professionals who are rooted in diverse communities.

The Impact Producer Fellows participate in three retreats and monthly workshops that will expose them to filmmakers, distributors, funders and leaders in the field of nonfiction film. As part of the Fellowship they will attend the International Documentary Association’s “Getting Real” Conference, and hone their skills on short films produced by Firelight Media’Documentary Lab Fellows.

The newest cohort of Impact Producer Fellows hail from Detroit, Miami, Durham, Cambridge, Henderson NV, Los Angeles, Brooklyn and San Francisco. They are:

  • Nadia Awad, a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and visual artist that currently produces short videos for Lambda Legal and publishes writing on Palestinian movements and cinema.
  • Ben-Alex Dupris, who created social justice media during the occupation at Standing Rock, and continues Native advocacy work through his company Antelabbit.
  • Elbert Garcia, a Dominican-American based in Miami, is a content and communications strategist dedicated to organizing community voices for change.
  • Rajal Pitroda, a San Francisco-based producer, who in addition to her work as a producer and distributor of commercial and independent films, has supported local political campaigns through outreach and voter engagement and has volunteered at sexual assault and domestic violence crisis centers.
  • Rahii is an educator, organizer and multimedia artist, experimenting with ways to shift the power held by filmmakers over to the communities being recorded.
  • Set Hernandez Rongkilyois, an undocumented immigrant filmmaker and organizer who is from Bicol, Philippines. Set is currently working on projects that explore the criminalization of immigrant communities as well as the connection between immigrant rights and disability rights.
  • Ahlam Said is the impact producer for Assia Boundaoui’s feature documentary, “The Feeling of Being Watched.” She cut her teeth as a digital organizer around Arizona’s SB 1070 Law, known as “Show Me Your Papers”, and supported youth during the 2011 uprising in her home country of Yemen.
  • Paige Wood is a producer, writer, and creative strategist. Born in Detroit and shaped by its surrounding suburbs, Paige uses film as her form of activism; working to produce projects that subvert and diversify the dominant narratives in today’s media landscape and elevate unheard voices within communities of color.