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.
From 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.
Unearthing a wealth of archival material including photographs, newspaper clips, and video—including Ebony Magazine founder John H. Johnson’s The Secret of Selling the Negro—Nelson showcases a robust and lively Black capital market. The amount of work and effort that went into these businesses was breathtaking. At the time, Black businesspeople had to convince white advertisers that the Black dollar was robust and growing. Nelson highlights the growth and stature of these Black organizations, although they were continually undermined at every turn. The result is a glorious history book of Black companies that hasn’t been compounded together since the final edition of Victor Hugo Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book was published.
What stands out most in Boss: The Black Experience in Business is Nelson’s assessment of the perceived downfall of the Black business. Using historians like Mark Anthony Neal and Marcia Chatelain, Boss seeks to examine everything that Black businesses have come up against. In the 1930s in the midst of the Great Depression, thousands of Black companies folded and were never able to recover. More than the plummeting stock market, Black business owners had to contend with racist and jealous white people who attacked them and their businesses. These instances stripped away generational wealth and left entire neighborhoods that once thrived, barren and forgotten.
The instances of racial violence towards successful Black business owners were harrowing, but Nelson seeks to frame the history of Black business in a more uplifting light, reminding his audience that the system has not broken the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit of Black people. In addition to the historical facts, he unpacks the wealth that was stolen from Black business owners and the successful Black people that were written out of the history books. Brilliantly, Nelson cuts into the film’s linear timeline, turning his lens on current Black leaders in the business world, including Robert F. Smith, the richest Black man in the world, Backstage Capital CEO Arlan Hamilton, and Richelieu Dennis of ESSENCE and Shea Moisture. These modern day moguls would not be who they are had it not been for the blueprint that was laid out for them.
Though Boss runs at just two hours, it is so thoroughly packed with information that it could have very easily been a mini-series. Yet, it never feels overwhelming. A skillful filmmaker, Nelson effortlessly weaves through the origin stories of mega-businesses like Robert Abbot’s Chicago Defender, Barry Gordy’s Motown, Cathy Hughes’ Urban One, and John H. Johnson’s Ebony and Jet Magazines.
Chronicling three centuries Boss: The Black Experience in Business acts as a zippy history lesson. Quieting naysays and those who have questioned the legitimacy, longevity, and foundations of Black business as well as the repercussions of Jim Crow and desegregation, Nelson delivers a powerful document of Black courage and ingenuity.
BOSS: The Black Experience in Business premieres Tues, April 23 at 8/7c on PBS.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide