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Near the end of the documentary film "Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities," several students are shown arriving on campuses and preparing for the start of a new semester.

One young woman describes being the "token black girl" at her majority-white high school and how she was culturally placed into a false dichotomy as either a ghettoed minority or a high-achieving exception.

"I'm tired of those boxes," she says. "I don't want to be one thing or the other — I want to be me."

For roughly 100 years after the Civil War, historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, were the only higher-education option for America's black community.

That changed with court cases that outlawed racial segregation, and changing attitudes toward diversity and civil rights.

But progress can be a double-edged sword, according to "Tell Them We Are Rising" director Stanley Nelson. As doors opened to black students and scholars, he said, HBCUs struggled to maintain their position in academia.

"There were certain things, certain institutions in the African-American community, that were hit really hard by the end of segregation," Nelson said. "I don't begrudge anybody for saying, 'I'm going to go teach at a predominantly white institution.' But it was a talent drain on black colleges."

"Tell Them We Are Rising" will premiere on Monday at the Sundance Film Festival. It's Nelson's ninth film selected for the annual Park City event.

He said he spent several years planning and three years working on the film, which adds to his past projects on America's black newspapers, the Freedom Riders of the civil-rights movement, and the Black Panther Party.

"This is not a simple film," he said of his latest project. "We're telling 170 years of history in 90 minutes."

That history covers the origins of HBCUs in the antebellum South through the modern era, when black colleges and universities are facing declining enrollment and increased competition within faculty ranks.

In one of the film's interviews, United Negro College Fund president Michael Lomax describes the schools' legacy of "redefining what it meant to black in America."

"You weren't doing something with your hands, you were pursuing a career where education and intellect mattered," Lomax says. "Black people were in charge. Black people were in control. Black people were writing the checks."

The U.S. Department of Education currently recognizes 107 historically black colleges and universities, most of which are in Southern states. But within that group are varying levels of institutional health, Nelson said.

"Some colleges have shut down, some are shutting down," he said. "The financial struggles for most of them have become more and more acute but many of them struggle on."

Despite the challenges, "Tell Them We Are Rising" shows how HBCUs remain a source of opportunity.

While black colleges may no longer be the only option, Nelson said, they present a unique and valuable setting for many students.

"This is a chance to not be the minority," he said. "It's also a chance to be able to be free to speak your mind in a way that you might not be in a predominantly white institution, or you might not feel you are as an 18-year-old."

Author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, who attended Howard University, said HBCUs have a role to play into the future. But he added that not all of them are likely to survive to play that role.

It's part of the freedom struggle, he said, as the institutions that support discriminated communities lose their significance as discrimination weakens.

"You can't complain about being ghettoized and then be upset when people leave the ghetto," Coates said. "You've got to pick one or the other."

What remains to be seen, Nelson said, is whether and how historically black colleges and universities will adapt to the times.

"I think black colleges and universities are changing and developing," he said. "We'll see where they go in the future."

Twitter: @bjaminwood —

At Sundance

"Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities," part of the Documentary Premieres program, screens Monday, Jan. 23, at 11:45 a.m. at The MARC in Park City; Wednesday, Jan. 25, at 9 p.m. at Temple Theatre in Park City; Thursday, Jan. 26, at noon at Sundance Mountain Resort; Friday, Jan. 27, at 9 p.m. at Salt Lake City Library Theatre; and Saturday, Jan. 28, at 5:45 p.m. at Yarrow Hotel Theatre in Park City.