Sheila Nevins Sets Doc Slate at MTV With Two Films That Explore Racial "Injustice"

Matt Furman
Sheila Nevins

Davy Rothbart's feature '17 Blocks' and Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan's short 'St. Louis Superman' become the first two projects for Nevins' budding division.

Two months after joining MTV as the head of its new Documentary Films division, Sheila Nevins has lined up her first two projects with an eye fixed on the upcoming awards season.

First up is 17 Blocks from Emmy winner Davy Rothbart. The feature-length film follows an African-American family living mere blocks away from the U.S. Capitol in Washington over the course of 20 years.

The second project is a short titled St. Louis Superman, directed by Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan, about state Rep. Bruce Franks Jr., a Ferguson activist and battle rapper who was elected to the overwhelmingly white and Republican Missouri House of Representatives.

MTV Documentary Films will release both titles in the fall and qualify them for awards consideration, something that Nevins is adept at given her status as one of the most decorated producers in Oscar and Emmy history. All eyes have been on Nevins' first moves at MTV after she abruptly left HBO Documentary Films in 2018 following a 38-year run there. Both films will debut next month at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival.

“At the heart of American democracy, there is an injustice that gnaws at the soul of the have-nots, and Davy Rothbart’s 17 Blocks and Smitri Mundhra and Sami Khan’s St. Louis Superman are two films that expose both the injustices and courage of Americans who survive against almost insurmountable odds,” Nevins said Thursday in a statement. “MTV Documentary Films foray begins with these two impactful films.”

Executive produced by Nevins and produced and financed by Big Beach’s Alex Turtletaub, Michael B. Clark and Marc Turtletaub alongside Rachel Deniz and Rothbart, 17 Blocks has racked up several awards over the past few months, including best documentary film editing at the Tribeca Film Festival, the Audience Award and Jury Award for best feature documentary at the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival, best North American documentary feature at Mammoth Lakes Film Festival and the Excellence in American Profiles Award at the San Francisco Documentary Festival.

Similarly, St. Louis Superman won the jury prize for best documentary short at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, the Audience Award for best short at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, the Audience Award for best short at AFI Docs and the Special Jury Mention at Tribeca. It was produced by Mundhra, Khan and Poh Si Teng and executive produced by Nevins and Fiona Lawson-Baker.

After making the surprise jump to MTV in May, Nevins immediately began looking for culturally resonant films to build out the fledgling doc division's lineup. She also is quietly working on the in-house productions while focusing on monetizing the cable network's 35 years of library content.

St. Louis Superman and 17 Blocks offer a window into the types of issues that Nevins is looking to explore. She previously told The Hollywood Reporter following the Oscar nominations in 2016: "Documentary film­makers are not looking in their own backyard. And if they are, they're not being recognized for it. The fact that there was no documentary about Black Lives Matter at a time when this is such a critical American issue … was unbelievable."

"Sheila Nevins is an absolute legend, and her mission at MTV Documentary Films to tell absorbing, unique and urgent stories that can make a real difference in the world resonates powerfully with mine,” Rothbart said. “The brave Sanford family, our filmmaking team and I are enormously honored to be working with Sheila and MTV."

Added Mundhra and Khan in a statement: "It is an incredible honor to be able to work with Sheila Nevins, the preeminent leader in the documentary space, and the team at MTV Documentary Films to bring Bruce Franks Jr.’s story to audiences across the U.S. This year has been a truly incredible journey and we know the best is yet to come.”

Bahareh Kamali and Mandana O’Connor negotiated the deals on behalf of MTV, while Submarine repped the 17 Blocks filmmakers. AJE Witness negotiated on behalf of the St. Louis Superman team.