By Joe Arney
For most people, winning a citywide essay contest as a teenager would just be a great way to get an all-expenses-paid trip to the nation’s most celebrated historical sites, like Washington, D.C.
For Nandi Pointer, there was a bigger prize.
“That was the first time I realized that my mind could take me places—my mind and my effort, and my trying,” she said. “And it helped give me this lust for seeing the world, and its cultures and people.”
Now in her third year in the media studies PhD program, Pointer’s curiosity about other people and their stories has led to impactful research into identity formation for Black men who’ve left the United States.
How she came to do so at CMCI is a story about Pointer finding her own identity—as a scholar, a documentary filmmaker and a niece to the Pointer Sisters, the influential R&B/soul group.
“Having famous aunts imbued me with this idea that anything was possible, that there’s no limitation to what you can do,” Pointer said.
But there was “sort of a dichotomy, as well,” she said. Her parents were both successful college professors, and her father’s side of the family included the Pointer Sisters, pro baseball player Aaron Pointer and NBA champion Paul Silas. But both sides of her family struggled with societal ills like violence and addiction.
That fueled her belief in the power of education—and also her curiosity about the violence Black men face in the United States and how that affects the formation of their identities. Pointer, who has worked and taught in South Korea, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia, was abroad when George Floyd’s murder in 2020 catalyzed nationwide protests about the police and violence against African Americans.
“As a Black American woman, I was shocked,” she said. “But being in Saudi Arabia, there was this distance, so I was able to process those events in a different way. And it made me wonder about the other Black expats I was around, as well as the Black Americans experiencing these violent mediated events in the present moment in their own cities.”
“I’m hoping to change the perception around Black men by seeing them as teachers, understanding their lives, and ultimately learning about how their experiences as Black men in America led them to seek opportunities overseas.
Exploring media and violence
Pointer said she’s always been “fascinated by the media and its power to influence how we see ourselves in the world.” She held production roles at MTV’s news and documentaries division and produced content for Netflix, where she worked on the award-winning documentary “The Black Godfather.”
So, it’s no surprise her research interests also have roots in how the media demonstrates violence against Black men, from Rodney King and Oscar Grant to Ahmaud Arbery and Floyd. That has powered her other major interest, exploring the perspectives of Black students who’ve witnessed these murders through the media.
“I’m hoping to change the perception around Black men by seeing them as teachers, understanding their lives, and ultimately learning about how their experiences as Black men in America led them to seek opportunities overseas,” Pointer said.
CMCI was a strong fit, she said, because the college gave her access to an advisor like Sandra Ristovska, assistant professor of media studies and a fellow documentary filmmaker.
“Sandra is the primary reason I came to CU,” Pointer said. “She got a grant from Mellon/ACLS”—the American Council of Learned Societies—“working on visual justice, media and human rights, which was really interesting to me.”
They’ve been close collaborators throughout Pointer’s PhD journey. Ristovska, Pointer said, has supported and challenged her as a scholar, giving her opportunities to showcase her own research insights.
“Nandi approaches the people she interviews with care and compassion, so they really open up to her, trusting her to tell their stories,” said Ristovska, an expert in how images shape the pursuit of justice and human rights. “She has a remarkable ability to analyze a pressing social issue from a unique perspective.”
Inspired, supportive CMCI faculty
At Ristovska’s suggestion, Pointer applied to the International Association for Media and Communication Research, in Lyon, France, where she presented in both the visual culture and newly created FLOW34 divisions; the latter showcases multimodal scholarships. She presented a short work in progress featuring the Black expats who will be a part of her future documentary film.
She’s also worked with Ristovska on a career diversity series for publicly engaged doctoral students at CMCI, insights from which were shared in a reflection piece and in a panel discussion at this year’s National Humanities Conference, in Indianapolis.
“I have been so impressed with how inspiring and supportive the CMCI faculty are,” Pointer said. “They really work with you to make sure you’re both guided and challenged along each step of the way.”
It’s the kind of impact she hopes to have one day as a professor. Her goal after completing her PhD is to join the faculty of a top research university that allows her to pursue her three loves of teaching, scholarship and filmmaking.
It’s a role she’ll excel in, Ristovska said.
“Nandi is driven by a strong commitment to social justice, and I really can’t wait to see where her journey takes her next,” she said.
Traveling and teaching abroad helped give Nandi Pointer perspective on Black identity formation, which has led to some impactful research. At right, her brother, Shegun, leads a class as Pointer films the encounter. Photo courtesy Nandi Pointer.