William Greaves

Tuesday, July 30, 2002

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded July 30, 2002, in New York.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression in America. I’m Ken Paulson. We’re joined today by the highly respected independent filmmaker, William Greaves. Welcome.

William Greaves: Thank you.

Paulson: Great to have you here. You know, for anybody who cares about independent film, you’re pretty much the dean. You’re certainly a giant in the field. And yet there was a point in your career where we might be talking to you here today as a Broadway star. You had quite a positive beginning to your career as an actor: Broadway shows and films.

Greaves: Well, yes, I thought I was going to be an actor for the long haul, but it developed that, as a result of various kinds of experiences I was having in the theater, I decided I’d better get behind the cameras.

Paulson: You were a star on Broadway, literally, the lead role in Broadway shows and —

Greaves: Well, I wouldn’t say the lead, but I had feature roles in a movie called “Lost Boundaries” with Mel Ferrer and Canada Lee, and I was featured on Broadway with Todd Duncan in a play called “Lost in the Stars,” about South Africa. It was a very interesting play, but I’ve, I’ve also done other leading roles, you know, a black-cast film I did called “Souls of Sin,” and I was — co-starred in that one.

Paulson: The — one of your credits I was most intrigued by was probably one of your minor roles, but you appeared in a film with Joe Louis.

Greaves: Oh, yes, a film — it was called “The Fight Never Ends.” I’ve been trying to locate that film, and I just can’t, and anybody who knows of the film, knows where it is, I’d love to see it.

Paulson: We’ll have to spread the word. Do you recall what your role was? Did you ever get in a scene with Joe Louis?

Greaves: Yes, I was in a scene with Joe Louis. It was really an awesome experience. I play the young tough guy, tough kid in Harlem on the Harlem streets, and he was trying to reform me and my gang, and so we had an exchange of dialogue. It was a very important experience for all of us to see this, you know, this icon, you know, right in our midst.

Paulson: And, in fact, you’d been an amateur boxer, isn’t that right?

Greaves: Well, yes, at the Harlem YMCA, I did a little boxing, and an uppercut caused me to change my mind. That was delivered by this young man. I think his name was — Nathaniel Bell was his name, and he hauled off, and he hit me so hard that I saw all these lights, and I said, “I see the light. I’m, I’m not going to be a boxer.”

Paulson: So, Mr. Bell deserves some credit for your career in film.

Greaves: He did, indeed. He did, indeed, yeah.

Paulson: The situation you describe — and I understand that there came a point where you were not happy with the roles you were being offered.

Greaves: Mm-hmm.

Paulson: What occurred?

Greaves: Well, actually, I had a slightly traumatic experience in a play. I think it was called “Twentieth Century,” with — Gloria Swanson was the lead and José Ferrer was, I believe, the director. And I did not know the part that I was going to play. My manager sent me over to the first day of rehearsal without my having even seen the script, and when I got there, Joe Ferrer wanted me to play this Uncle Tom character. The sort of Stepin Fetchit type of thing. And I — and you know, I almost threw up on the script. I was so exhausted and angry with that casting that I decided I’d better get behind the camera and see if we couldn’t do something about these stereotypical images that are being projected on the screens of America, you know, because it’s a very awesomely horrible experience for Americans to be constantly subjected to this kind of stereotyping, and so that’s, that’s how I got out of the field of acting and went into, you know, production.

Paulson: You were a contemporary — a rival, I guess, of people like Sidney Poitier and others.

Greaves: Yeah, Sidney came slightly after me, just about within a couple years, but he has, you know, sailed to the heights.

Paulson: I was curious whether you and other young actors at the time, African-American actors, if you ever, you know, if you anticipated it getting better — because the roles — certainly, the roles he played later in the ’50s were —

Greaves: Sure, yeah, absolutely.

Paulson: — had much more substance.

Greaves: Well, yes, I mean, Sidney has done a series of just marvelous performances, and at the time that he and I were coming through, I didn’t see the possibilities of that kind of roles. I mean, there was one role that he and I competed for, which he got, a role — was called “No Way Out.” A young doctor, a young intern, I believe. And — but I didn’t see an afterlife from that particular production. But I left the country. I left America and went to Canada because I decided that I would have a chance to get into the film industry up there much more easily than in America, which was a sort of a — an apartheid society.

Paulson: And you ended up working on a great many films in Canada over the next decade.

Greaves: Oh, yeah, I worked with the National Film Board of Canada. I was on the production staff, got a great experience in working in various facets of production from sound editing, editing, writing, directing. It was a marvelous experience to work on those films up there.

Paulson: What led you to believe that the climate had changed enough for you to return and really get a shot here in the U.S.?

Greaves: Well, I guess, you know, it was the — I guess you have to say, you know, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks. I began to see James Baldwin and Sidney and Harry Belafonte and the various people on the television screens discussing racial issues and the, the problems in inter-group harmony in America and so on, and I said to myself, “Gee, you know, if, if they’re not careful down there in America, they’re going to make it.” I had begun to feel that the country had a lot of possibilities, and I had an opportunity to come back to do some production work in America, and I said, “Well, you know, I’m gonna, I’m gonna jump at that opportunity and see what I can do.”

Paulson: One of the issues involving diversity in motion pictures, in television and so on is, of course, what you’ve alluded to, the stereotyping —

Greaves: Yeah.

Paulson: — and the reinforcement of negative images. And, of course, that’s not the only way people get ideas, and another big part of the dissemination of information in this country is through news media.

Greaves: Sure.

Paulson: And “Black Journal” addressed some of that. Could you talk about your involvement in that?

Greaves: Yeah, well, actually, “Black Journal” was set up in the wake of the urban disorders, shall we say, the riots that were taking place across the country I think in one year. I think it was 1965 there was something like a hundred and, 150 riots that were taking place across the country, buildings burning down and all of that sort of thing, and Lyndon Johnson, then president, set up the President’s Commission — the Presidential Commission on Civil Disorders. Anyway, it became, it became known as the Kerner Commission, and it sought to have a look at the causal factors involved in the riots, and in the process of inquiring into these causes, they came out with this report, and the report, among other things, said that one of the reasons for the anger and the rage that was taking place within the black communities of the country was that the black community did not feel that it had access to the media, that it had an opportunity to express itself, to communicate with itself, communicate with the larger, the larger community, and that the larger community — the mainstream, white community — did not seem to have any understanding or sympathy or interest in this part of American reality, which, after all, was the — a major — one of the major components of this, you know, society.

Paulson: If, at the time, “Black Journal” was designed to provide — reflect voices who were unheard and, and tell stories that were being untold — and I think most would agree it succeeded at that — what’s its counterpart today? How good are we at reflecting the diverse communities in which we live through the media today?

Greaves: Well, I, I hate to tell you that “Black Journal” was — in 1968 to ’70, anyway, and a few years later — it was one of 18 hours of television network programming that was controlled by a black executive group, a black executive committee and producer. And today, there isn’t any public affairs show on television that is soul-controlled. I mean, I think that’s — it’s a very damning statement, and it suggests that the country hasn’t moved that far ahead.

Paulson: I’m fascinated by your work in independent film. It seems to me, you faced some special challenges when you put documentaries together.

Greaves: Yeah.

Paulson: You want to tell stories, of course, that, again, aren’t being told. You want to tell them with integrity. You also have to raise money for them, and I’m intrigued by that nexus. How do you tell the tough stories and still get corporations to underwrite them?

Greaves: Well, I don’t know. I guess it’s my winning personality. I don’t know. I really don’t know. I should say that what I try to do is, I try to identify those foundations and those issues that are of special interest to the particular foundation or are very, very current or very, very distant in the, in the public memory. I mean, for example, the film that I did on Ida B. Wells was such a situation in which no one had heard of Ida B. Wells ’cause she had completely disappeared from the pages of history and so on. And when I proposed that show, that program, it elicited the interests of the executive producer of the series. That was Judy Crichton, who was the executive producer of the “American Experience” series, and she liked the ideas, and she came from a — sort of a journalist’s background. So, she went along with it.

Paulson: How do you think we lose an Ida B. Wells? How does she become a footnote in history?

Greaves: Well, you know, I, I hate to say it, but you know, racism is a principal factor, because this was a marvelous woman, very important figure in the leadership role of human rights in America. She worked very closely with Susan B. Anthony, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and also with Frederick Douglass and other people, but somehow or other, the media has a — is very adept at forgetting important black people, you know, who have made significant contributions to not only the black experience but to America as a whole, because when you really look at it, the black community in America is basically the engine that has been driving this country toward the realization of the American creed. I mean, the American creed is a very lofty set of principles and what have you, about democracy and justice and equality and so on, but very often is delinquent — the society is delinquent in living true to that creed, and the black community has been, over the centuries, agitating in favor of the American creed. As Frederick Douglass says, “Agitate, agitate, agitate,” and that’s what we’ve been doing as a people, and I think that there’s not enough gratitude for the contribution that we’re making to this society, you know?

Paulson: I’d very much like to share with the audience —

Greaves: Yeah.

Paulson: — some moments from the Ida B. Wells films.

Greaves: OK, sure.

[Video clip plays]

[Voiceover: "The black community of Memphis was stunned. Wells retaliated with her pen. She wrote an editorial. ‘The city of Memphis has demonstrated that neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the white man or become his rival. The white mob could help itself to ammunition without pay, but the order was rigidly enforced against the selling of guns to Negroes.’ Now, this is something that touched her not just as a woman who was sensitive to the injustices that were being imposed upon blacks, but it was a personal note and all that, I think, forced her to ask the question of, ‘Am I willing to stand up to whoever may oppose me in trying to — in fighting for racial justice?’"]

Paulson: Ida B. Wells’ story is compelling, and I think most people who had some sense of African-American history, if they’re going down the list, they’re going, “You know, she’d be a great candidate.” But Ralph Bunche, I’m not sure you would get that kind of universal reaction, and I’m sure you had this experience when you went out and said, “Let’s do a documentary about Ralph Bunche.”

Greaves: Yeah.

Paulson: Can you talk a little bit about who he was and why you thought he would be a good candidate for a documentary.

Greaves: When the idea first developed that I could do a film on Ralph Bunche, I was fascinated only because I knew he was a famous man at one time in American public life, and — but I just — I didn’t quite know what he was all about, what he did. I mean, he always seemed to be remote but very lofty in his position in the, in the — how can I say — in the — what is it? In the pantheon of, of important people. But I just didn’t know really what he did, and it fascinated me, because when I worked at the United Nations, I would see him at a distance, you know, passing a piece of paper or something like that to — at a Security Council meeting, and that’s all I knew about him, but I had an opportunity to do a film on his life, because the Ford Foundation was playing host, in a sense, to Ralph Bunche’s successor, a man by the name of Sir Brian Urquhart, who was writing a friend of mine, Lloyd Garrison, who was working at the, at the Ford Foundation. And he said, you know, “The Ford Foundation is interested in Ralph Bunche. They have, they have this scholar in residence who is writing this biography on his life.” He said, “It might be a good idea to talk to him. Do you know anything about Bunche?” I said, “No, this sounds very interesting.” And so I made a little pitch to the Ford Foundation to do a film on his life. And I had access then — they approved, and I had access to the Bunche papers through Brian Urquhart, and he was fantastic in his recalling and recounting various stories about Bunche, and I became progressively intrigued, and when I began reading the galleys of his biography of Bunche, I just freaked out. I said, “This guy is hot stuff. This is fantastic.” Ralph Bunche was very central to the civil rights movement in America. He was very central to the human rights movement in the world. He was very central to the decolonization of the world. I mean, he wrote — he was the principal drafter of those chapters on the — in the United Nations Charter, which was developed in San Francisco in 1945. He was the most important person in drafting those sections of the United Nations Charter that led to the decolonization of the world, and, of course, in the wake of that decolonization, the emergence of these African and Asian countries into independence put a lot of pressure on the United States to alter its positions in — with respect to race, and, of course, he was very much involved with peacekeeping and conflict resolution. He was very heavily involved with the whole Palestine situation, and, indeed, he’s — the work that he did in negotiating the armistice agreements between Israel and the neighboring Arab states has not been repeated. I mean, it’s the only time in history that someone was able to get all four Arab nations and Israel to sign this peace treaty. I mean, this is a remarkable human being. And one of the things about him is the fact that he always worked most effectively behind the scenes. You know, so he didn’t — he really didn’t want you to know too much about what he was doing. But he was really hot stuff.

Paulson: It must be tremendously satisfying to be able to celebrate the life of a man who, candidly, has been overlooked and under-appreciated.

Greaves: Yeah.

Paulson: We should take a few minutes here and see a brief portion of “Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey.”

[Video clip plays]

[Voiceover: "1949, Ralph Johnson Bunche, an African-American mediator, successfully negotiates an armistice agreement between Israel and four Arab nations — Transjordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Syria — the only time in the long history of the Arab-Israeli conflict that all four Arab nations sign a peace treaty with Israel. Throughout the world, there is great hope for lasting peace in the Holy Land. For this unprecedented feat, Ralph Bunche is awarded a Nobel prize for peace and is catapulted into worldwide celebrity. Less well-known but more significant and longer-lasting is the role he played behind the scenes in the historic struggle for self-determination after World War II, a struggle in which over a billion people of color gained national independence."]

Paulson: I understand that the first cut on that was 17 hours.

Greaves: Who told you that? There’s a, there’s a spy here. How did you know that?

Paulson: That’s quite a bit of editing, isn’t it? To go from 17 hours down to —

Greaves: Oh, listen, let me tell you. Well, we had to interview a number — quite a number of people. We interviewed something like 65 or 70 individuals who were either friends or colleagues or scholars who were conversant with Bunche’s life and what he was doing, family members. And then we had to access all this footage, newsreel footage, and thousands of graphics, because he was photographed all over the place. And the life that this man represents is so varied. There are so many facets to it. I mean, he set up the United Nations Agency on Atomic Energy. He devised all the strategies — the major strategies of peacekeeping that are still in use today, and negotiation techniques, and he was very much involved at Howard University, for example. He was a — you know, he was a left-of-center activist. If you know, as a young professor there, he was — at the age of 25, he set up the political science department at Howard. Actually, he was a high achiever in many, many ways. He was the class valedictorian at Thomas Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, and then he became valedictorian of his class at UCLA, and he got, you know, scholarships to Harvard University, and all of this, to me, was very important material, and so it led to a 17-hour rough cut, we’ll call it, a very rough cut, yeah.

Paulson: And you’re going to repackage some of that content, though, for classroom use.

Greaves: Oh, yes. We’re now — we were unable to persuade PBS to take a six-part series on his life. They said two hours was all we were going to get. So, we got this opportunity to put it on prime-time television, two hours, which we jumped at, and — but we’re now completing work on 14 video teaching modules of 20 to 30 minutes apiece, which deal with various facets of his life: his early life, his, his work in the Congo, his work in the Middle East, his work in other hot spots, Cyprus, and so on. And his relationship to Dag Hammarskjöld, for example, and U Thant and the Vietnam War and so on. I mean, so there are a number of different phases and aspects of his life that need to be known about, and I think would be of interest to schools, colleges, universities, special interest groups, and the like.

Paulson: We’ve covered a lot of ground in a very short time. I’ve just got one more question for you. You know, you left, you left Broadway and movies to make films, to tell stories on your own terms.

Greaves: Yeah.

Paulson: Over the years, are there stories that you have been unable to tell? Are there stories that you are still itching to tell?

Greaves: Yes, oh, absolutely. I mean, I want to do films on ancient African history, for example, because I had the very good fortune of having — as a matter of fact, one of the reasons why I stopped acting, I studied ancient African history. This was before Rome and Egypt and before Greece, Africa had a very, very important role to play in world evolution, in the evolution of humankind, and most people don’t know about it. It’s just information that’s just beginning to come out now, and so that’s an area that I would love to do some work in. There are feature films that I would like to produce, but you know, the business of raising money for these features, you know, is an awesome problem, and, of course, with the new technology and what have you coming on stream, it’s much more easy, but there are a number of stories, and I don’t want to tell you what they are, because someone, someone will jump at them.

Paulson: OK, we’ll just watch with interest. Thank you so much for joining us here.

Greaves: Well, thank you for having me.

Paulson: Great conversation. Our guest today has been filmmaker William Greaves. Thank you for joining us today for “Speaking Freely.”