Greaves, William 1926–
William Greaves 1926–
Veteran filmmaker William Greaves has produced more than 200 documentary films about such important African-American historical figures as Ralph Bunche, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, and Malcolm X. In doing so, he has not only worked to dispel stereotypes and raise awareness about the role of blacks in American history, but also has created a unique niche for himself in the film industry—when he began, there were very few African Americans involved in any aspect of movie making. He is considered by many to be the leading black documentary filmmaker in the United States. Though he also has produced four feature films, including Bustin’ Loose, starring Richard Pryor and Cicely Tyson, Greaves prefers making documentaries “because of their role in consciousness-raising and as an advocacy instrument,” he is quoted as saying at the U.S. Department of State online. “They also tend to have a longer shelf life.”
Greaves was born on October 8, 1926, and raised in Harlem, New York. He was one of seven children of Garfield, a West Indies immigrant, cab driver, and sometime-minister, and Emily (Muir) Greaves. He earned scholarships to Greenwich Village’s Little Red Schoolhouse and Stuyvesant High School, and was competitive in boxing, basketball, and track. He studied art and, at Stuyvesant, a top-ranking science high school, was in the top ten percent of his class. This history of competition in his life set Greaves up to succeed. “You could say [this reveals] a very neurotic need to succeed,” he said in a 2001 interview with the Christian Science Monitor. “I prefer to think of it as a burning need to exceed my past work … I just come from a family that treasured and valued achievement.” He studied engineering at New York’s City College until joining the Pearl Primus Dance Troupe. He also worked in radio and as a model. He has written more than 100 songs recorded by artists such as Eartha Kitt and Al Hibbler. Despite a prolific professional life, Greaves maintains a rich family life. He married Louise Archambault on August 23, 1959. Louise Greaves is a frequent collaborator on Greaves’s film projects, and the couple has three children: David, Taiyi, and Maiya.
Greaves got his start in the film industry in front of the camera. He was a professional actor on television, in
At a Glance…
Born on October 8, 1926, in New York, NY; son of Garfield and Emily Greaves; married Louise Ar-chambault, 1959; children: David, Taiyi, Maiya. Education: Attended New School of Social Research and New York Actors Studio, 1948; City College of New York, 1949-51, and New Institute for Film and Television, 1950.
Career: Began theatrical career with Sierra Leonian Asadata Dafora Dance Company, joined Pearl Primus Dance Troupe, then worked as an actor on stage, radio, television, and screen from 1943 to 1952. Actor in stage productions, 1943-49; National Film Board of Canada, Ottawa, ON, film production staff, 1952-60; UN International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), Montreal, QC, public information officer, 1962-63, writer, producer, 1965-66; UN Television, New York, NY, producer, dir, 1963-68; National Educational Television, exec producer, scriptwriter, host of Black Jour-nal television series, 1968-71; associated with Black News television series, 1975; William Greaves Productions, Inc., founder and president, producer, director, and scriptwriter, 1964-. Director, producer of documentary and feature films, c. 1952-81. Canadian Drama Studio, Montreal, QC, and Toronto and Ottawa, ON, founder, dir, 1952-63; Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, New York, drama teacher, beginning in 1973; New York Actors Studio, teacher; Boston Univ, Boston, MA, visiting prof of film; lecturer at numerous institutions, including Boston, Columbia, Howard Univ, City College of City University of New York, and Williams College. Member of Emmy Award panel, NATAS; media panel judge, NEA and National Endowment for the Humanities, both beginning in 1979; media committee, Indo-American sub-commission on education and culture; chair, film comm, council member, MA Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy; film panelist, AFl; vice près, AMAS Repertory Theatre, Inc.
Selected memberships: AFTRA; American Guild of Authors and Composers; DGA; Natl Assn of Black Media Producers, co-founder, 1970; WGA; Equity Assn; New York Actors Studio, member of auditioning committee; SAG.
Selected awards: American Film Festival Award; Emmy Award, as executive producer of Black Journal 1970; Silver Medal, Intl Film and Television Festival, 1969; Oscar Micheaux Award, for induction into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, 1980; Doctor of Humane Letters from King Memorial College; recipient of more than sixty awards from International Film Festival for documentary and feature films.
Addresses: Office —William Greaves Productions, Inc., 80 Eighth Ave., Suite 1703, New York, New York 10011.
film, and on Broadway from 1946 to 1952. He first appeared as an actor at the American Negro Theater, and later played the lead role in the stage production of A Young American. He was a featured actor in the Broadway hit Lost in the Stars, and was part of the all-black cast of the 1948 feature film Miracle in Harlem, and in The Fight Never Ends, which starred heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis and was released in 1949. He joined the renowned Actors Studio, but was frustrated by the limited range of stereotypical roles that were available to black actors at the time.
Greaves gave up on acting and left the States in the 1950s to work behind the scenes on the production staff of the National Film Board of Canada. He worked at manual labor jobs to make a living while apprenticing there, and worked his way up to writing and directing assignments. For eight years, he worked as editor, writer, and director on over 80 National Film Board films. Among Greaves’s Canadian films was Emergency Ward, a reality-style documentary that was filmed entirely in a Montreal hospital and aired in Canada in 1958.
Because his work was rarely broadcast beyond Canada, Greaves was virtually unknown when he returned to the United States in the early 1960s. American avant-garde filmmaker Shirley Clarke saw Emergency Ward and recommended Greaves to the head of the United States Information Agency’s (USIA) film division. Working from the United Nations headquarters in New York, Greaves made documentaries for the USIA such as Wealth of a Nation (1964) and The First World Festival of Negro Arts, which was released in 1966. The film captured the landmark event, which took place in Dakar, Senegal, and celebrated the artistic achievement of Africans, both in Africa and in the African Diaspora. The film features performances by such leading African-American artists as composer Duke Ellington, choreographers Alvin Ailey and Katherine Dunham, and poet Langston Hughes. Greaves was also executive producer and co-host of the ground-breaking public affairs series Black Journal, which appeared on network television from 1968 to 1970, and he earned an Emmy award in 1970 for his work on the show.
Greaves founded his own film company, William Greaves Productions, in New York City in 1964. Since then, he has written, directed, and produced dozens of award-winning documentaries. From These Roots is an in-depth social, political, and cultural exploration of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. The film aired on PBS and NBC in 1974, won 22 film festival awards, and is considered a classic in African-American history studies. Nearly 30 years after its release, the show was still being shown on television in the United States and abroad. Greaves also wrote, directed, and produced Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice, which was part of the PBS television series The American Experience, was narrated by Nobel Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison, and won more than 20 film festival awards and was nominated for a 1990 NAACP Image Award. In the Company of Men earned eight film festival awards. Among his most successful films are Booker T. Washington: The Life and Legacy, Frederick Douglass: An American Life, Black Power in America: Myth or Reality?, and Still a Brother Inside: The Negro Middle Class. “Not every Greaves film is an underappreciated gem,” wrote one Christian Science Monitor critic in 1991, but “his best films … are models of their genres.”
In February of 2001, Greaves enjoyed the national broadcast of one of his proudest works, Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey. Bunche was an African-American U.S. diplomat who served as under-secretary general of the United Nations and in 1950 became the first person of color to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Bunche was scorned by blacks and political radicals, who considered him a traitor or an Uncle Tom for working with the white-dominated political establishment. Greaves, however, painted a portrait of Bunche as a catalyst for change. “Bunche was a master at conflict resolution,” Greaves says online at the U.S. Department of State web page. “He was the Michael Jordan of his day in terms of international diplomacy, and was very much involved in the emerging civil rights movement in America as well.” An even more compelling motivation for making the film, Greaves continued, was that Bunche “was famous at the time; then he disappeared. I wanted to bring him back.”
The Bunche documentary was a tremendous undertaking for Greaves, and took ten years to make. “Making this film … was an odyssey in itself,” Greaves said in a 2001 interview with the Christian Science Monitor. He had to pore through mountains of texts, photographs, and newsreel footage and contact hundreds of foundations and corporations to secure funding for the project. At one point, he appealed to comedian Bill Cosby and his wife Camille to pay for one hour of the show. The film’s rough cut ran 17 hours. Greaves, his wife (the film’s co-producer), and several editors underwent an agonizing editing process to bring it down to four hours. Greaves was then informed by the broadcaster, PBS, that he would have to bring the final version down again to just two hours. Greaves conducted all the interviews in the film, which was narrated by Oscar-winning African-American actor Sidney Poitier. Ralph Bunche was shown in competition at the Sundance Film Festival and won gold awards from two international festivals. Greaves hoped the film would be “a persuader and a motivator for social commitment,” he told Freda Warren for the Christian Science Monitor.
Though Greaves prefers documentaries, he has been involved with four feature films. He was executive producer of Bustin’ Loose, starring Richard Pryor and Cicely Tyson. He also wrote, directed, and produced three other features. Ali, the Fighter starred prizefighters Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier and was released in 1971. The Marijuana Affair was released in 1975 and starred Calvin Lockhart and Ingrid Wang.
Greaves made the feature Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One in the cinema verite style in New York City during the summer of 1968. He assembled a cast of acting students from the Actors Studio, and shot the film entirely on location in Central Park. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is a blend of narrative, experimental, and documentary filmmaking. The film is a “film-outside-of-a-film”—that is, the story of a tyrannical film director (played by Greaves) being filmed by an outside documentary crew while filming his own movie. Greaves gave the actors only a loose idea of the plot, used handheld cameras with minimal crew and natural lighting, and tried to capture the realities of life itself, rather than the forged realities of a narrative feature. “The film had to be chaos, but chaos of a very special character: intelligible.” Greaves is quoted as saying online at WilliamGreaves.com. “It had to have a classic flow of some kind. It had to hold your attention, even though it was supposed to be a lousy film.” The result is a bitingly witty movie that centers on an unraveling marriage where the wife faces abortion while her husband is conflicted about his sexuality.
The avant-garde feature was highly acclaimed but enjoyed little to no popular success. Actor and director Steve Buscemi took the promotion of the film on as his pet project, and it enjoyed renewed interest in the 1990s. It was shown at numerous film festivals, including Sundance, Munich, San Sebastian, Sydney, Paris, San Turino, Graz, Goteberg, Denver, the Hamptons, and Lake Placid, New York. It was a precursor to such popular films as This is Spinal Tap, Living in Oblivion, and The Blair Witch Project, but never found distribution. Buscemi and Greaves hope to team up and make a sequel to the film called Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take Two.
Despite his early career shift from in front of the camera to behind it, Greaves has long remained involved with the Actors Studio. He was honored, along with actors Robert DeNiro, Jane Fonda, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and others, with the Studio’s first Dusa award in 1980. From 1969 to 1982 he substituted occasionally for the late Lee Strasberg as moderator at the Actors Studio and taught acting at the Strasberg Theatre Institute in New York. He has remained involved as a member of the Studio’s board of directors and auditioning committee, and moderates sessions there.
Of his 200-plus documentary films, seven have earned more than 70 international film festival awards, an Emmy award, and four Emmy nominations. In 1980 he was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame and received a special tribute at the first Black American Independent Film Festival in Paris. He also has been awarded an “Indy,” which is the Special Life Achievement Award of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers. Greaves also lectures often and leads informal discussions about independent filmmaking and the African-American experience at educational and cultural institutions. He has accompanied his films to India, China, East and West Africa, Japan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia and the West Indies.
When he was starting out in the film business, Greaves recalled with Freda Warren of the Christian Science Monitor, “I thought I was going to be a hurricane, but I ended up becoming … merely a single raindrop falling on a stone. But hopefully there are other raindrops of similar mind impacting this stone, this intractable humanity. And over time … this [human condition] will change.” Major retrospectives of the filmmaker’s work have been held at the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum in New York. The Brooklyn show, titled William Greaves: Chronicler of the African-American Experience ran in 1991 and presented Greaves as a “black film pioneer [who] made his way into the white-dominated movie world and blazed an amazing number of racial, artistic, and cinematic trails,” according to a 1991 article in the Christian Science Monitor.
Emergency Ward, National Film Board of Canada, 1958.
Wealth of a Nation, USIS, 1964.
The First World Festival of Negro Arts, USIS, 1966.
Still a Brother: Inside the Negro Middle Class, NET 1968.
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, 1968.
In the Company of Men, Newsweek, 1969.
Black Journal (TV show), NET series 1969-70.
Voice of La Raza, EEOC, 1972.
Power vs the People, EEOC, 1973.
Ali, the Fighter, 1973.
From These Roots,The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 1974.
Just Doin’It, CPB1976.
Nationtime: Gary, William Greaves Productions, 1977.
In Search of Pancho Villa, Anthony Quinn, 1978.
Where Dreams Come True, NASA, 1979.
Space for Women, NASA, 1981.
Booker T. Washington: Life and Legacy, National Park Service, 1983.
Frederick Douglass: An American Life, National Park Service, 1984.
Beyond the Forest, Indian Red Cross, 1985.
Golden Goa, Government of India, 1985.
Black Power in America: Myth or Reality?, CPB, 1987.
The Deep North, WCBS, 1988.
Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice, PBS, 1989.
Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey, PBS, 2001.
Also composed more than 100 popular songs, including “African Lullaby” with lyrics in both English and Swahili, recorded by Eartha Kitt in 1952.
Christian Science Monitor, February 21, 2001, p. 15.
Cineaste, March 2001, p. 35-37.
Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com (December 23, 2002).
PBS.org, http://www.pbs.org/raplphbunche/filmmaking_about.html (December 23, 2002).
United States Department of State, http://usinfo.state.gov/usa/blackhis/lgreaves.htm (December 23, 2002).
William Greaves Productions, http://www.williamgreaves.com, (December 23, 2002).