Remembering Filmmaker, Actor, “Black Journal” Producer, and Political Activist William Greaves (1926-2014)

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“For the Black producer, television will be just another word for jazz. And jazz for the Afro-American has been a means of liberating the human spirit.”—William Greaves, NYT, Aug. 1970

“I am Furious Black,” wrote Harlem-born actor, filmmaker, and activist William Greaves (1926-2014) in a New York Times Op-Ed that ran in the summer of 1970.[1] For Greaves, this frustration stemmed not from the uncontrollable rage of the uncivilized man (as implied by racist invocations of the “angry black man” stereotype), but as the only reasonable response to an irrational, “sick” society. Echoing Marxist philosopher and “father of the New Left” Herbert Marcuse, Greaves explained, “America is caught in the grip of myriad neurotic and psychotic trends. Call these trends racism, sexism, chauvinism, militarism, sadism, what you will. The fact remains that it is virtually impossible to develop the necessary number of psychiatrists, psychologists, analysts, therapists and the like to cope with America’s emotionally disturbed population.” Vietnam, environmental degradation, and a nation’s history defined by racism created such tragedy and carried the seeds of total destruction, according to Greaves. The solution: Television. Greaves proposed that socially conscious programming produced through Black control of “the most powerful medium of communication ever devised by man” could halt this devolution. Television, in the right hands, would provide the means for a Marxian reversal of power and a reeducation of the ruling class (though one defined by first and foremost by race), potentially bringing the country to mental health. Greaves writes, “For the Black producer, television will be just another word for jazz. And jazz for the Afro-American has been a means of liberating the human spirit.”

Greaves’ op-ed offered a compelling alternative vision to Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution will Not be Televised” wherein Television would be the very site of revolution. Of course, as Greaves states, any real change through television would require the impossible: “an inversion of the education to entertainment ratio.” Yet rather than pure idealism, Greaves’ proposal for a Black lead media society really served as a creative way to deliver a biting critique of the failures of a White Supremacist society. Still, Greaves’ utopic vision of Black media control seemed slightly less impossible at the time of his writing than it would have just a few short years before, and Greaves was already at the forefront of a new movement. In 1968, Greaves became the co-host of the first national news program geared exclusively towards the issues of Black America, Black Journal. Although most of the production team were African-American, a white producer remained in charge until the crew (including St. Clair Bourne and Madeline Anderson) staged a “palace revolt” to demand Black control at the top-level. Otherwise, they claimed, the show was falsely promoting itself as “by, for, and of the black community.” The walk out proved successful and Bill Greaves became the show’s executive producer from 1968-1970. With over 20 years of experience in nonfiction filmmaking for institutions ranging from the National Film Board of Canada, where he got his start, to the United Nations, which ultimately brought him back to the States, Greaves credentials were outstanding. Black Journal, for which he would earn an Emmy, first brought this impressive, politically engaged personality to a national audience.

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“We were aware that, you know, that we had to in a sense develop programming that somehow or other communicated to the black community, and in one of the paradigms or one of the devices that I used in developing the monthly programs was the black barbershop, you know, the kinds of things that are routinely discussed in a black barber shop. I used to filter these concepts through a black barbershop in my own head” – Greaves on Black Journal, Sept. 12, 1991 interview with Phyllis Klotman and Janet Cutler, Black Film Center/ Archives Interview Collection

Black Journal, produced by National Education Television (NET, the forerunner of PBS), reached the widest audience of any Black-oriented nonfiction program, but it was one of several African American programs created in the wake of the Martin Luther King, Jr assassination and the Johnson Administration’s 1968 National Advisory Report on Civil Disorders (the “Kerner report”), which faulted white American society for the growing “separate and unequal” racial divide. Giving voice to African American issues on television provided a first step towards a more democratic participation. Devorah Heitner’s recent book, Black Power TV argues that national programs including Black Journal and Soul! (WNDT) as well as local programs such as Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant and Say Brother helped to shape “imagined communities” through television’s sense of shared time and space, creating “Black public squares” on the air.  Heitner writes, “On one hand, television seemed to offer a perfect, nonviolent outlet for Black discontent, and even provided a way to contain Black audiences by keeping them at home. But coupled with the attraction local officials and station managers had toward giving Blacks a place to let off steam without rioting, television producers and executives were also fiercely protective of the public influence that television wielded.”[3] Due to such concerns, these programs remained limited by poor funding and undesirable time slots. Greaves, surely aware of this dynamic, tapped into the fears shared by some White Americans and media producers with his proposition for a televisual New Black Order in the New York Times.

Television’s potential must have been appealing to a man who had spent nearly 30 years running up against, and seeking to evade, the racism of the commercial film industry. Greaves found success early as an actor, working with the American Negro Theater alongside Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier. During the same period, he spent time at the Actor’s Studio, studying method with Marlon Brando among others. Greaves appeared in some of the last Black-cast feature films of the “race film” era, such as Miracle in Harlem (1948) in addition to a major Hollywood production about passing, Lost Boundaries (1948). Despite success in Hollywood and Broadway, Greaves became increasingly frustrated with the stereotypical “Tom” roles available to African Americans. Not seeing much hope for better representation in 1950s theater and film, he gave up acting altogether and took up filmmaking. He started taking classes at City College under the tutelage of Hans Richter, but saw no place for himself in the American film industry, which he has described as “like apartheid at that time.”[4] Through the work and writings of documentarian John Grierson, Greaves found an alternative purpose for filmmaking that resonated. Rather than making commercial films for entertainment, Greaves sought to use the camera as a tool for social change. He moved to Canada without any set job or funding, just a determination to apprentice at the institution Grierson founded, the National Film Board of Canada. After proving his commitment with small, menial tasks, Greaves became assistant editor and sound editor, rising eventually to chief editor, writer, and director over 8 years, working on dozens of films. In 1963, Shirley Clarke saw his NFB documentary Emergency Ward and recommended him to head of United States Information Agency, George Stevens, Jr., who was hiring for the UN film and Television division. Stevens was excited by the idea of an African American filmmaker and Greaves took the position, which allowed him to turn his camera increasingly towards the issues, culture, and politics relevant to Black America right as the civil rights movement was gaining momentum.

GUYSE-1-obit-1-master675-v2Left: Greaves (far left) performs with Sheila Guyse in Broadway’s  Lost in the Stars (1948)

Below: Still from The First World  Festival of Arts—Greaves documentary of the 1966 Dakar event made  in association with the UN film division.

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“I try to invest my work with a high  degree of artistry brought on by the fact that as a young kid I started  out as an artist and sculptor, a painter and potter on the wheel and songwriter and God knows what else—but I was very much—a dancer,  an African dancer and a modern dancer…All of those artistic  disciplines, shall we say, are factored into how I approach a film. I try  to make sure my films have rhythm, have movement, have intellectual  content, dramatic power of one kind or another—and I use any—I use a  variety of techniques to accomplish that”—William Greaves, Interview  with Audrey T. McCluskey, Black Film Center/ Archive, Nov. 13, 2003.

While Greaves had long been a respected figure in television and documentary, his body of work never really came into focus for film scholars until his film Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One screened at the Flaherty seminar in 1991. Never finding distribution after completion, the film first screened for a public audience during the Brooklyn Museum’s 1991 retrospective of his work and played the film festival circuit following its long-delayed premiere. Shot in Central Park during the summer of 1968, Symbio follows five different sets of actors under Greaves’ direction (or more often, indirection) to play out a seemingly banal psychodrama countless times, drawn from method acting techniques he had studied at the actor’s studio. Greaves then proceeds to push both his cast and crew to their limits with his unrelenting, ever present camera.

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Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One appears as an outlier of Greaves career—an experimental feature that intentionally evades categorization as fiction or nonfiction. Instead, the film interrogates the central ideas of documentary and cinematic “truth” by exposing the manipulations of a filmmaker and the imbalance of power between the wielder of the camera and his subjects. Greaves has stated that he was fascinated by the idea of applying the Heisenberg principle of uncertainty to the camera (the Heisenberg Principle in physics, to generalize liberally, describes the limits of defining the properties of particles because the tools of observation always transform their objective reality). In doing so, Greaves upends the “fly on the wall” rhetoric of the direct cinema practitioners (e.g. Maysles, Pennebaker) though he finds some allegiance with the “camera as catalyst” practices of ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch.

Greaves places himself at the center of the film, playing a rather inept but demanding filmmaker, giving direction to an increasingly frustrated cast and crew. He either knowingly or unwittingly instigates a mini-revolt by his crew, which the crew films, and Greaves includes as the centerpiece of his film. In this scenario, Greaves presents his filmmaking experiment as an allegory of  “establishment” society, whereby the “auteur” functions as “the man” and eventually the people are driven to take a stand. Yet there remains one crucial element that compromises this equation: “the man,” in 1968, was always implicitly white.

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Although race remained a central theme throughout Greaves’ body of work, he never calls attention to his own racial identity in Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One.  Akiva Gottlieb describes this a “conspicuous absence” in his Black Camera article on the film. Gottlieb writes, “By refusing to call attention to his blackness, and to his extradiegetic status as a furious radical, he strips away a layer of easily interpretable, easily dismissible meaning, both for his collaborators and his audience. He refuses to let the film become one man’s perfectly appropriate gesture of social protest. Instead, Greaves wants the film’s revolutionary energy to manifest itself formally. As the production notes plainly state: This film is a rebellion!”[5] Through film, television, and print, Greaves takes on these multiple identities–the capable host and man in charge at Black Journal, the affable, but seemingly unqualified authority figure in Symbio, and the justifiably “angry black man” who writes op-ed pieces for the New York Times. In doing so, he outmaneuvers the traps that seek to categorize black individuals into easily recognizable, reductive types.

Avant-Garde film scholar Scott MacDonald has noted that scholars in attendance at the Flaherty Seminar agreed that the history of the 1960s American Avant-Garde would have to be rewritten following the emergence of Greaves’ film. Similarly, film historian Robert Stam stated in the preface of his book Reflexivity in Film and Literature that he lamented not having been aware of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm at the time of his writing, professing that the film “virtually calls for a rewriting of the history of filmic reflexivity.”[6] Alternately Adam Knee and Charles Musser propose that the discovery of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm should lead scholars to his larger body of work and towards a much deeper assessment of his contribution to the development of documentary practices. Musser and Knee write, “Black independent film-maker Bill Greaves has played a significant if not always fully appreciated role in the creation of a new post-1968 era in U.S. documentary cinema—one that is characterized by greater cultural diversity among those making films.”[7]

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One also leads one to speculate on the cinematic practices that may have intrigued Greaves, yet remained financially unfeasible. In 1984, the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in Oakland organized an independent filmmaking workshop open to black filmmakers who had completed at least one project. Featured guests included Gordon Parks, Sr. and William Greaves. John Williams covered the event for The Independent, highlighting discussions with featured guests Topper Carew, Gordon Parks, Sr., and William Greaves. When a workshop participant asked how he funded his projects, Greaves described his “adoption of the documentary-public affairs format as a survival strategy.” He then recalled a conversation that he had with a young Stanley Kubrick when they both studied with Hans Richter. Kubrick asked Greaves why he didn’t seem interested in making commercial features, to which he replied that he was simply more interested in documentary. Yet Greaves told the workshop attendees that this was not the whole truth: “The simple fact was that Kubrick was white and I was black. The motion picture field is one of the most fiercely competitive enterprises. The talented Kubrick could take a gamble and hope to succeed. I couldn’t.”[8]

bill_pictGreaves’ career trajectory began with his artistic childhood in Harlem, which lead him to the American Negro Theater, The Actors Studio, The “race film” circuit, Hollywood, Hans Richter at City College, NFB of Canada, UN Films, Black Journal, and ultimately to a career as an always-inventive, and often groundbreaking, documentarian. When the walls came up, he either fought through them or walked in another direction, refusing to compromise integrity for fame. As Musser and Knee note, “Even aside from the scores of films and television programs that Greaves has produced, directed, edited, photographed, written, and/or appeared in, his career itself deserves attention for the way it traces many aspects of African-American involvement in (and exclusion from) motion picture, television, and related industries.” Greaves remained prolific until the end of his life this past August, leaving behind a colossal body of work and an extensive archive of documents. Much work remains to be done on the rich life and multifaceted career of Bill Greaves.

[1] William Greaves, “100 Madison Avenues Will Be of No Help,” New York Times, Aug. 9, 1970, p.81.

[2] Devorah Heitner, Black Power TV, (Durham: Duke UP, 2013), 15.

[3] Ibid., 11.

[4] Sept. 12, 1991 interview with Phyllis Klotman and Janet Cutler, Black Film Center/ Archives Interview Collection

[5] “’Just Another Word for Jazz’”: The Signifiying Auteur in William Greave’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One” Black Camera, 5.1 (Fall 2013),164-183.

[6] Robert Stam, Reflexivity in Film and Literature: From Don Quixote to Jean Luc-Godard, (Columbia UP, 1992, updated from the 1985 edition), xvii.

[7] Adam Knee and Charles Musser, “William Greaves, Documentary Film-Making, and the African-American Experience,” Film Quarterly, 45.3

[8] John Williams. The Independent, 11.10 (Dec 1988), p 18.

 

 Research Collections on Greaves:

NYPL: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Black Film Center/ Archive: William Greaves Collection

Recent Tributes:

African American Review 47.1 (Spring 2014) includes a tribute to Greaves

ByBlacks.com: “Filmmaker Nicole Franklin plays tribute to her friend Bill Greaves”

The Root: “Remember When Black TV Programs Were Angry and Unapologetic?

 

~Noelle Griffis

About BFC/A

The Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University was established in 1981 as the first archival repository dedicated to collecting, preserving, and making available historically and culturally significant films by and about black people. The BFC/A's primary objectives are to promote scholarship on black film and to serve as an open resource for scholars, researchers, students, and the general public; to encourage creative film activity by independent black filmmakers; and to undertake and support research on the history, impact, theory, and aesthetics of black film traditions. View all posts by BFC/A

3 responses to “Remembering Filmmaker, Actor, “Black Journal” Producer, and Political Activist William Greaves (1926-2014)

  • Natasha Vaubel

    What a fantastically written, thorough piece! I’ll be passing this on to many others. Which BFC/A staffer actually wrote it? Congrats on a great piece.

    • BFC/A

      Thanks, Natasha! This was researched and written by BFC/A graduate student Noelle Griffis, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Communication and Culture. I’ll be sure to share your note with her.

  • Shirley Bowen

    This wonderful article is a wonderful tribute to the more marvelous and wonderful life that was Bill Greaves, surely my exemplar of why media matters and how we must use imagery and sensible critique to direct and give meaning to the struggle for higher human consciousness. The power of his commitment kept him among us to be that righteous beacon of light to guide us further along the way. Thank you, Natasha.

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