Marco Williams's documentaries offer an unflinchingly look in the face of hard issues like racism, injustice, and the black American experience. In filming personal issues such as the search for his father or the repercussions of a black man's murder at the hands of white racists, Williams has created a body of work that rises above its subjects. "The personal is the universal, the specific is the universal, not the general," he explained to Contemporary Black Biography (CBB).
Discovered Desire to Direct in College
An only child, Marco Williams was born on October 31, 1956, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father was long gone by then, but his mother—heir to four-generations of fatherless families—was resilient and strong. She moved Williams to Manhattan's Lower East Side when he was very young and made sure he received a top-notch education, including high school at the Buxton School, a progressive prep school in Massachusetts. Like many kids, Williams had a childhood full of friends, street games, and reading. Unlike many future filmmakers, he grew up without a television set and rarely went to the cinema. "I didn't know anything about movies, really," he told Billy Frolick in the book What I Really Want to Do Is Direct: Seven Film School Graduates Go To Hollywood.
When Williams was 18 his mother packed up for Paris to train as a French chef. Williams returned to Massachusetts and his freshman year at Harvard University. He had also been offered scholarships to Yale, Brown, and the University of Pennsylvania. Harvard did not pressure freshman to choose a major immediately, and Williams explored several areas. But one class stood out: "It was a survey of Alfred Hitchcock's films," Williams told CBB. "I was really impressed by the intentionality in his work, that things were not accidental, that you could create suspense through camera angle, camera choice, juxtaposition."
After his freshman year, Williams took two years off. "When I returned, I knew I wanted to make films," he told CBB. In the interim he had dabbled in poetry and photography and as he explained to Frolick, "I imagined that film was a synthesis of photography and poetry. So I went back to Harvard determined." Williams joined the school's visual and environmental studies program and as a junior directed his first film, From Harlem to Harvard, a half-hour film that explores race and class on the Harvard campus as it documented the experiences of a freshman from Harlem.
Debuted at Sundance with Two Films
In his senior year at Harvard, Williams had the chance to meet his father. It gave him the motivation for his next film, In Search of Our Fathers. "I started to feel that this was amazing—two adult men about to meet each other for the first time," Williams told Frolick. "I thought this should be documented." Over the next ten years, Williams compiled footage with his father and his mother, and slowly put together the 70-minute documentary. Along the way, the film became less about Williams's meeting his father and more about what constitutes the black family.
When In Search of Our Fathers was released in 1992, it earned international acclaim and several awards. It was shown on PBS's renowned series, Frontline, and was selected for the 1992 Sundance Film Festival, one of the most important film events in the world. It was also screened in places as far-flung as Australia, Africa, South America, Asia, and Europe. "For me, the greatest satisfaction was that even though this is a film about the American experience, black America, this film at its core is about family," Williams told CBB. "And I discovered that…people across borders, across nationalities, were really receptive to it. They were receptive to the personal nature of it. It was a personal story, but it had transcendent qualities."
During the decade that it took to make the film, Williams moved to the West Coast and enrolled in the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1991 he earned a master's of fine art in film and television, and in 1992 he earned a master's in Afro-American studies. In 1990 he had been selected out of hundreds of applicants to direct a half-hour short film for the Discovery Program and Chanticleer Films. Without a Pass, released in 1992 was shown on Showtime and was nominated for CableAce awards for Best Director and Best Theatrical Special. The film was also selected for 1992's Sundance Festival, making Williams the only director that year with two films in the Park City, Utah festival. "It was an affirming time for me," Williams told CBB. "I was presented to the film community as a storyteller. That was a great personal pride for me."
Murder Led to Racially Probing Film
Williams spent several years in California trying to break into Hollywood as a feature film director. When that did not pan out he accepted a teaching position with the North Carolina School of Arts in 1994. "It's not what I have been dreaming of doing," he told Frolick. "Even though the components are attractive, it's not by my own design that I'm leaving. I would have rather made a film and taken the opportunity to teach second." At North Carolina, Williams kept open his options to direct and within a year he was summoned to San Francisco to film Making Peace: Rebuilding Communities, part of a PBS series documenting grass-roots efforts to curb violence. Williams filmed groups in Columbus, Ohio, and Chicago, Illinois. "These films were me trying to fit into a series," Williams told CBB. "It has my imprint, but it is not me." After the film wrapped he returned to North Carolina to finish out his teaching contract.
At a Glance …
Born on October 31, 1956, in New York, NY. Education: Harvard University, BA, visual and environmental studies, 1981; University of California, Los Angeles, MFA, film and television, 1991; University of California, Los Angeles, MA, Afro-American studies, 1992.
Career: Filmmaker, 1980-; North Carolina School of Arts, Winston-Salem, NC, filmmaker-in-residence, 1994-98; Duke University, Durham, NC, guest lecturer, 1995; New York University, New York, NY, assistant professor, 1998-; Two Tone Productions, New York, NY, 2000s-.
Awards: National Educational Film and Video Festival, Silver Apple Award, for In Search of Our Fathers, 1994; IFP/New York, Anthony Radziwill Documentary Achievement Award, for Two Towns of Jasper, 2002; Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, Silver Award, Best International Documentary, for Two Towns of Jasper, 2002; Pan African Film Festival, Best Documentary, for Two Towns of Jasper, 2002; Peabody Board, Peabody Award, Excellence in Electronic Media, for Two Towns of Jasper, 2003.
Addresses: Office—Two Tone Productions, 426 Broome St., New York, NY, 10013.
In 1998 Williams returned home to New York and became an assistant professor in the film and television department at New York University. That same year, a black man named James Byrd was chained to the back of a pick up truck by three white supremacists in the town of Jasper, Texas. Byrd was dragged until he was beheaded, his body torn apart. Whitney Dow, a white filmmaker who had known Williams since his days at Buxton contacted Williams about the murder. "While Whitney was shocked and surprised, I was disturbed but neither shocked nor surprised because black people have been brutally murdered in America for over three hundred years," Williams said in a "Behind the Lens" interview posted on the PBS Web site. "With our differences so vivid, I thought that by collaborating with Whitney on a film about race, one that embraced the idea that black and white Americans see the world differently, we might be able to be part of bridging that difference."
Williams and Dow spent a year filming in Jasper with two separate film crews—Williams's was black, Dow's white."[This approach] was a result of conversations between Whitney and I, a black man and a white man, and recognition that there are some topics, particularly racial division, that we're more comfortable to speak about with people who are like ourselves, with people who have a common or shared experience," Williams explained on NPR's All Things Considered.
Worked to Improve Race Relations
2002's Two Towns of Jasper revealed the depths of racism in a way that few films had done before. It also earned Williams the most accolades of his career. In addition to film festivals worldwide, including Sundance, the film was shown on PBS's P.O.V. series and featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show and ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel. Williams and Dow earned several awards for the film, including the prestigious Peabody. Williams also found a way to give back with the film. "[It] has also allowed me to do community outreach," he told CBB. "The film is screened in places working to deal with race relations."
Williams next film was 2003's MLK Boulevard for the Discovery-Times Channel. "It explored why we name streets for King, and what those streets signify," Williams told CBB. "Have we come a long way in this country or not? Do these streets honor an American hero or an African-American icon?" To make the film Williams traveled to dozens of MLK boulevards across the country. "So it was also a road trip movie." Williams followed that up with another film touching on black themes in America—I Sit Where I Want: The Legacy of Brown v. the Board of Education. Set in a Buffalo, New York, school, "It is about race relations through the eyes of high school students," Williams told CBB. The film was highly praised by the press and went on to become part of race relations programs at schools nationwide.
By 2005 Williams was running Two Tone Productions and had several film projects in the works, including Banished: How Whites Drove Blacks Out of Town in America, a documentary exploring the forcible expulsion of blacks from dozens of American towns following the Civil War. "It asks how do we reconcile the atrocities of the past?" Williams told CBB. Williams also continued to teach at NYU while seeking his break into feature films. "I have lots of ideas for film," he told CBB. "I have not reached the pinnacle of my career but I feel good about the work that I've done. I feel like I am making a contribution to society."
Director, From Harlem to Harvard, 1980.
Script supervisor, The Brother from Another Planet, 1983.
Director, In Search of our Fathers, 1992.
Director, Without a Pass, 1992.
Director, Making Peace: Rebuilding Our Communities, 1995.
Co-director, Two Towns of Jasper, 2002.
Director, MLK Boulevard, 2003.
Director, I Sit Where I Want: The Legacy of Brown v. the Board of Education, 2004.
Frolick, Billy, What I Really Want to Do Is Direct: Seven Film School Graduates Go to Hollywood, Dutton, 1996.
"Behind the Lens: Filmmaker Interview," PBS: P.O.V., www.pbs.org/pov/pov2002/twotownsofjasper/behindlens_filmmaker.html (May 29, 2005).
"Whitney Dow and Marco Williams Discuss Their Film Project, a Documentary Called the "Two Towns of Jasper," All Things Considered, National Public Radio (NPR), January 17, 2003.
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Marco Williams on July 1, 2005.
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