How do you sum up the life and career of Miles Davis in just under two hours? That was the challenge that noted documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson, Jr. faced with his latest project, Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and later screened at the Maryland Film Festival in Baltimore in May. Funded by PBS’ American Masters and Eagle Rock, the meticulously researched film is the result of two years of production and includes never-seen-before footage and photos, as well as numerous interviews with musicians, scholars, family, and friends. The film is narrated by Miles himself, or at least using the words of Miles, spoken in his trademark sandpaper whisper by actor Carl Lumbly. The result is a masterful and compelling work that tells the whole unvarnished story of the mercurial Miles as a musician and a man.
It helps that Nelson is no ordinary filmmaker. Widely known, right alongside Henry Louis Gates, as one of the pre-eminent chroniclers of African-American history and culture, he’s made more than 20 films, including Freedom Riders, The Black Panthers, Freedom Summer, and The Murder of Emmett Till. He also received the prestigious MacArthur “genius” grant back in 2002. Perhaps there was no one better suited to tell Miles’ life story as an African-American artist achieving success in a white society.