Marcia Smith, president of Firelight Media, plans to step down

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Courtesy of Art21 and Sean Zanni/PMC

Marcia Smith and Stanley Nelson at the 2022 Art21 Family Reunion.

Marcia Smith, co-founder and president of Firelight Media, the nonprofit production company that airs many of its films on public television, plans to step down from the organization.

Smith will stay at Firelight Media until a successor is chosen. A national search for a new leader will begin this month.

Firelight Media, incorporated in 1998, is known as one of the top organizations for nonfiction productions by and about people of color. Smith formally started the company in 2000 with her partner, the filmmaker Stanley Nelson.

“It has been a joy to lead Firelight Media through an extraordinary two decades of growth and expansion … ,” said Smith in a news release. “From the outset, Stanley and I understood the transformative potential of documentary films that center communities of color in front of and behind the camera. What we did not anticipate is how much the filmmakers we’ve supported would transform the industry as a whole.

“There is certainly more work to be done, but I’m proud of the impact that the Firelight Media community has had on representing a fuller picture of the American story — not only through their films but through their own production companies and access programs. As I near the end of my tenure as President of Firelight Media, I have full confidence in the board, the staff, and our community of filmmakers to advance this work together.”

Firelight Media started out primarily to support films directed by Nelson and written by Smith but grew into an organization that leads several of the largest grant programs providing funding to nonfiction filmmakers. One of its programs, Documentary Lab, awarded $25,000 to emerging documentary filmmakers in late 2022. A recent filmmaker who produced a national program with help from Firelight is Dru Holley, whose film on the Buffalo Soldiers was released last year.

In 2021, PBS and CPB gave Firelight $5.5 million to support programs assisting filmmakers. In addition to its William Greaves funds for mid-career filmmakers, Firelight has a fellowship program with Frontline and a partnership with commercial streamer Hulu to oversee the Hulu/Firelight Kindling Fund.

With Smith as its leader, Firelight received in 2014 the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions, known as the “MacArthur Genius” award for organizations. 

Smith has also produced and written several films under the Firelight banner, including Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities, Through the Fire: The Legacy of Barack Obama, Freedom Riders, Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple, Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind and The Murder of Emmett Till.

Smith received a Primetime Emmy nomination in 2003 and won the Writers’ Guild Award for best nonfiction writing for her work on The Murder of Emmett Till. She is also author of the book Black America: A Photographic Journey, published in 2003.

Smith is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Writers Guild of America. She currently sits on the Peabody board of directors for the East Coast and is on the board of directors for the International Documentary Association.

“I’m truly amazed by what Firelight has accomplished since Marcia and I launched it in 1998,” said Nelson in the news release. “Back then, we were focused on producing stories about underrepresented issues and communities that we wanted to see on screen. Today, Firelight Media is proud to support other filmmakers who share this vision. Under Marcia’s astute leadership, our artist support programs have flourished, creating a support system for filmmakers of color in various stages of their careers. I am grateful to Marcia for her foresight and dedication to making this organization as impactful as it is today.”

Smith plans to pursue archival and installation projects after leaving Firelight. They will build on her work on a projection mapping project used for the opening of the National Museum for African American History and Culture in 2016 and her curation of the African American History Pop-up Museum installation in Apalachicola, Fla.

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