Stanley Nelson's 'Boss: The Black Experience in Business' Rewrites the Narrative On Black Entrepreneurship [REVIEW]
Black businesses have been the cornerstone of Black communities in this country for more than a century. With his new PBS documentary, Boss: The Black Experience in Business, prolific director Stanley Nelson explores the history of Black business. Traveling back in time during the antebellum period and stretching forward into the 21st century, Nelson unpacks 150 years of Black business in America.
Opening with James Brown’s 1973 soul hit, “The Boss,” Nelson turns his lens on Ursula Burns, the former CEO of Xerox. Burns' rise in corporate America wasn't assumed. Like many Black folks, she came from a working-class family and was encouraged to step into a “practical career" like nursing or education to make a living for herself. However, a summer internship at Xerox changed the path she would take. Burns joined the company after college, working her way up to the CEO’s Executive Assistant and eventually taking the top spot herself. As the first Black woman to head a Fortune 500 company, Burns' story seems improbable and in many ways it is. However, what Nelson unveils in Boss is that the roots of Black business in America are literally embedded in the country's soil and history.
rom the 19th century forward, Nelson chronicles the rise of Black business from apprenticeships that enslaved peoples held to the birth of barbershop franchises, Black banks, and insurance companies during the Reconstruction era and into the 20th century. Due to Jim Crow laws that forced Black people out of white spaces, Black businesses became a necessity and a source of pride. Black business owners were able to provide affordable and dignified services directly to their people. By elevating these little known narratives, like the hundreds of businesses on Black Wall Street in Tusla, Oklahoma, or the legacy of Madame C.J. Walker, the film reveals just how tenacious and ambitions these Black business owners were—especially when they had very little capital or knowledge about what it meant to run a successful company.
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