William Miles, also known as Bill, lived a life devoted to exploring and documenting the history, culture, and achievements of African Americans. On May 12, at the age of 82, Miles died in Queens, reported the New York Times. Although stricken with a number of health problems, the cause of his death is unknown. Born on April 18th 1931 and raised in Harlem on West 126th street, Miles lived behind and worked at the famous Apollo Theatre.  Among his many awards was his induction into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1986. He leaves behind his wife of 61 years, Gloria Miles, daughters Brenda Moore and Deborah Jones, and three grandchildren.

William Miles (photo: Don Purdue)
William Miles (photo: Don Purdue)

The New York Times recently reported:

“Mr. Miles was part historical sleuth, part preservationist, part bard. His films, which combined archival footage, still photographs and fresh interviews, were triumphs of curiosity and persistence in unearthing lost material about forgotten subjects.”

Many of Miles’s films concentrated on documenting African Americans’ contributions to the military. Miles’s film Men of Bronze (1977), also known as the Harlem Hellfighters and the Black Rattlers, has been noted as one of his most important films. The film had its debut at the New York Film Festival and later aired on national public television. Men of Bronze, which is a combination of photos, footage, memoirs, and anecdotes, captures the emotional journey of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment and the story of how they fought under the French flag due to segregationist policies during the First World War. Authors Phyllis R. Klotman and Janet K. Cutler stated in their book Struggles For Representation: African American Documentary Film and Video, “Men of Bronze (1997) became a model for documentaries that put African Americans back into military history.”

The Black Film Center/Archive holds copies of several of Miles’s films, including 16mm prints of his series, I Remember Harlem.  Other Miles material at BFC/A includes an interview conducted by BFC/A founder Phyllis Klotman and a collection of Miles’s research materials, donated in August 1997, relating to the 1992 documentary film Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II.  Co-produced and directed by Nina Rosenblum, this ninety-minute film documented the stories of black army units fighting against racism in the military and at home. The film was nominated in the 1993 Academy Awards for Best Documentary Feature.  A finding aid is available online here.

In 2006, William Miles placed a major collection of his work with the Washington University Film and Media Archive in St. Louis. 

Miles was a recipient of many awards throughout his career and was a member of several distinguished organizations. Some of his awards and affiliations include: the Black Harlem Award, the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, the International Documentary Association, and the Black National Programming Consortium.

William Miles’s work will continued to be treasured for years to come, as his documentaries provide insight on the history of many aspects of African American life across an array of professions and communities.

~Katrina Overby

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