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William Greaves: Documenting The Truth About Black History In Film

By Deardra Shuler
May, 2001

William Greaves is an important filmmaker. Important, because he has intentionally set out to document and record an accurate accounting of Black history. His films seek to give the TRUE story, not the frequently slanted version of HIStory. Greaves is a commendable filmmaker because he makes films from his heart not for his wallet. Tired of Hollywood's bending of the truth and stereotyping people of color, Greaves set out to do something about it and has succeeded in doing so.
Born in the middle of The Harlem Renaissance, William grew up on 135th Street in the heart of Harlem. His family of 9, lived in a walk up tenement, near the popular night spot, The Big Apple Bar and Grill. Greaves' father was a part-time minister and full-time taxi driver and his mother, an evangelist.
He frequented the Harlem YMCA on 135th Street as a youth, where he played basketball, boxed, crafted pottery, sculpted and painted. "William Artist was my art teacher, as was the well known artist, Ernest Critchlow. I was pretty good at painting but my father felt painting was not a good career choice. He insisted I direct my talents toward something technical, something that would provide a more substantial livelihood." Greaves attended grammar school at P.S. 89, and Douglas Jr., High School 139 both in Harlem. In pursuit of his father's dream for him, he attended Stuyvesant High School, before attending The City College of New York. "I originally planned to become a mechanical engineer and attended Stuyvesant because of its science department. But, I got side tracked. I quit City College and went into the theatre much to my father's dismay. I began as an African dancer with the Asadata Dafora's Dance Company and then I joined Pearl Primus' Dance Company. We danced at The Roxy Theatre, Town Hall, Carnegie Hall, and in Madison Square Garden."

Greaves began acting at The American Negro Theatre. He later went on to perform in featured roles on Broadway, in movies, on television and radio. My first acting experience was in 1945, in an Owen Dodson play at the ANT. Owen, a well-known poet and playwright, also headed the Theatre Dept at Howard University. Greaves was cast as one of the leads in Owens play, ' Garden of Time.' He later auditioned for the legendary Actors Studio and was accepted as a member. Among his classmates were Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, Anthony Quinn, Shelley Winters, Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson, Ben Gazzara, Lee Grant, et al.
During the 1950's, Black roles were scarce and positive depictions of African Americans almost nonexistent. Frustrated by the racist nature of American society, the actor began to study Black History. He became enthralled with ancient African history and as a result, was prompted, to go behind the camera and produce his own films. "I began to see Blacks were being depicted in the most obscene and vile manner by the white media. I realized that Blacks were the victims of psychological warfare and that mainstream and educational media deliberately portrayed us in negative, false, demeaning caricatures; and stereotypes, rather than in roles that gave an accurate accounting of our true culture and history. Black people are a very ancient people. We descend from African Societies that had educational centers, most notably Timbuktu and the Library of Alexander in Ancient Egypt.
The Ethiopians were accomplished in the early science of astronomy but you would not know it from the academic community and Hollywood's depictions of us," claimed Greaves. "I finally saw how vicious this onslaught of propaganda was against Black people and decided the truth must be told. I realized that if it were ever to be told accurately, given the conscious and unconscious nature of American racism, enlightened Black filmmakers, would have to tell it. I decided to get behind the camera and do something to correct these false notions." And Greaves did just that. "It's important for Black filmmakers, to highlight in their films, our valiant struggle for liberation and dignity in America, our lives today and pre-slave history in Ethiopia, Egypt, Ghana, Songhay, Benin, et al.
Greaves began to hone his skills as a moviemaker while in Canada at the National Film Board of Canada. "I worked on about 80 documentary films in Canada I also studied acting under Lee Strasberg at the legendary New York Actors Studio, and later on, sometimes acting as a substitute teacher for Strasberg. I have taught over 3,000 actors in Canada and America throughout the course of my career. "
During his 50 year career, Greaves has produced over 200 documentaries and made four theatrical feature films. He was the executive producer, at Universal Pictures, of the movie, 'Bustin Loose' starring Richard Pryor and Cicely Tyson. His company, William Greaves Productions, did 3 feature films, 'Ali the Fighter' starring Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, the 'Marijuana Affair,' starring Calvin Lockhart and an avant garde cinema verité feature film called Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One." Symbio will be shown on the Sundance Channel this fall.
In his documentary films, Greaves has depicted the lives of such major figures as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Paul Robeson, Malcolm X and Ida B. Wells. " Ida B. Wells, was a turn of the century legendary journalist, who published a militant newspaper called the Memphis Free Speech which protested the lynching of Blacks in America." A powerful figure and black leader between 1880-1920, Wells' militant tone came to the attention of federal agents who began to monitor the actions and speeches of Marcus Garvey especially after he had been seen in the company of Ms. Wells," noted Greaves. "Wells became enraged, when white local business people murdered three of her best friends, in the city of Memphis, simply because her friends had a business that competed with white businesses. She wrote fiery articles about that incident in her newspaper and began attacking racism and lynching throughout America. Her newspaper, The Memphis Free Press angered the whites in Memphis and they, in turn, tried to lynch her. She narrowly escaped." Greaves' depiction of Wells in the documentary film, Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice, received high acclaim. Toni Morrison read from her diaries for this film which appeared on the PBS series, The American Experience. It has won over 20 Film Festival awards.
Greaves won an Emmy as executive producer of the public television series Black Journal. He produced and co-hosted the series from 1968-70. The show came into being as a result of the Civil Rights demonstrations, riots and other urban disturbances during the civil rights revolution of the 1960's. Black Journal was set up to address African American concerns of exclusion and negative depiction. "I became the executive producer and co-host with Lou House," said Greaves, "It was an hour-long show. In fact it was the only time in the long history of American television that there has ever been a black-controlled public affairs network TV show in 1800 hours of monthly programming on national television. This remains true to this day!" When Mr. Greaves, left Black Journal, he was instrumental in getting Tony Brown to replace him as Executive Producer."
The prolific producer has made such documentaries as The First World Festival of Negro Arts, From These Roots, Black Power in America: Myth or Reality and numerous other films on social, political and cultural topics, all relating to the African American experience. His latest project, Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey was selected for competition at the Sundance Film Festival and aired on PBS during primetime (February 2, 2001). Produced, written and directed by Greaves, the film was narrated by Sidney Poitier. "Ralph Bunche was incredible, a different kind of African American leader. He was Under Secretary General of the United Nations, he helped to foster, and even create, international policies that would facilitate the liberation and empowerment of people of color. When I say people of color, I am talking about all people of color around the world, not just those of the African Diaspora." Greaves observed. '"Bunche's legacy has been ignored by the media and academic for almost 30 years. This is terrible. The Moors, from North Africa and sub Sahara Africa, brought civilization to Europe? The European Renaissance came about partly as a result of Europe's contact with the Moors; the Moors invaded Europe and conquered Spain, Southern France, and Southern Italy. The Europeans call this period "the Dark Ages." Maybe it was dark to them, simply because the people who were the carriers of civilization were dark people of African/Arab mixture.
"Misinformation about Black life and history is really extensive. "There is a great deal of information that has yet to see the light of day. As I travel across the country, I find that there are an increasing number of people anxious to learn more about Black history. As Charles C. Seifert, a Black historian, once said, "A race without a knowledge of its history is like a tree without roots!"
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