By St.Clair Bourne


William Greaves is one of the most respected independents in the film nd television production field. In addition, he is considered the dean of independent African-American filmmakers and through the years, has helped to launch the careers of many young African-American filmmakers. He has produced more than 200 documentary films, 8 of which have on more than 70 international film festival awards, an Emmy Award and four Emmy nominations.

Greaves has been inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1980; he won an Emmy for his work as executive producer of the classic public affairs network TV series “Black Journal” and an “Indy” – Special Lifetime Achievement Award – from the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, in 1986. He’s been the subject of a special “homage” from the first Black American Independent Film Festival in Paris, among other honors.

When an African-American artist in almost any field is honored, the
tendency is to recognize his or her efforts separate from the mainstream. However, in William Greaves’ case, nothing could be further from the truth. He has been acclaimed as “a thoroughly original multi-faceted American artist” and has enjoyed success across the full spectrum of the entertainment arts as a producer, director, writer, editor, cameraman, actor, dancer, drama teacher and songwriter. For example, Greaves has been a longtime member of the Actors Studio in New York and was honored by the Studio with its first Dusa award, together with such well-known alumnae as Robert DeNiro, Jane Fonda, Marlon Brando, Sally Field, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Ellen Burstyn, in 1980.

As one of the young filmmakers who came up under his mentorship, I would say that looking at the life and works of William Greaves can help one understand the artistic and social development of American cinema as well as race relations in America. Born and raised in Harlem by Caribbean parents, he was exposed to African culture and history through the many Black cultural centers that existed during that time of segregation. Through his love of social dancing, he became involved in professional dance groups and began to perform professionally.Greaves then began acting with the American Negro Theatre appearing in their landmark productions like “Garden Of Time” and “Henri Christophe.” He appeared in several Broadway productions: Lee Shubert’s “A Young American,” and in two hit shows, “Lost In The Stars” by Maxwell Anderson-Kurt Weil and “Finian’s Rainbow.” He and then went on to act in the first wave of movies (“A Miracle In Harlem” and “Lost Boundaries” “Souls of Sin”) made for Black audiences in the late 1940’s.

But despite a promising career as an a featured actor in the hit movie, Lost Boundaries with Mel Ferrer and Canada Lee two feature films, a featured role in “Finian’s Rainbow” for a two-year run on the Broadway stage and full membership in the Actors Studio in 1948, he considered most of the roles constantly offered him racially insulting and therefore unacceptable. He remembers being slated to appear in the Broadway revival of “Twentieth Century” starring Gloria Swanson and Jose Ferrer who also directed and produced Greaves discovered that he was to play a stereotypical bumbling porter and he quit on the spot.

Greaves decided to get behind the camera where he could control what appeared on the screen. He began studying film production under Hans Richter at the Film Institute at the City College of New York. But again discrimination raised its ugly head. Greaves managed to work worked as an apprentice with the documentarian Louis de Rochemont but looking at faced with the almost impenetrable wall of racism in the motion picture industry of that time, Greaves left the US to study and work in Canada in 1952.

This decision to leave was based on several realities that confronted Greaves. His strategy was to learn filmmaking from the ground up because his goal was not just to only produce and direct films but to change the stereotyped representation of African-Americans and in the process, change the representation of whites as well. As Greaves saw it, this could be done directly through documentary films or indirectly through feature films. Documentaries offered him, he felt, a more realistic opportunity to achieve his goals. He was particularly drawn to the ideas of film pioneer John Grierson who set up Canada’s National Film Board and his writings about the documentary and its use as a social force.