Film Fest Honors Black Pioneer
NEW YORK — IN recent years, a new generation of African-American filmmakers has been shaking up tradition. But long before such exciting talents as Spike Lee and Charles Burnett came on the scene, a black film pioneer made his way into the white-dominated movie world and blazed an amazing number of racial, artistic, and cinematic trails. His life and work are being celebrated by the Brooklyn Museum in a major retrospective called ``William Greaves: Chronicler of the African-American Experience.'' Mr. Greaves's career has been as colorful and dramatic as anything Hollywood might have invented. He has produced more than 200 documentaries, received four Emmy nominations, and earned more than 60 film-festival prizes. Yet his professional life started far from the world of movies. He studied art as a child, then performed with dance companies, worked in radio and as a model, and became a stage actor, appearing on Broadway and joining the renowned Actors Studio in the late 1940s. Film and television c redits soon followed.
Disturbed by the racist stereotypes that flourished in Hollywood and on Broadway, Greaves left his successful performing career to study filmmaking and African history. Discovering that Hollywood had little use for nonwhite professionals and refusing to compromise his talent, he emigrated north, apprenticing at the respected National Film Board of Canada while doing manual labor for a living. Working his way up to writing and directing assignments, he helped make dozens of Canadian films and many stage productions before taking a United Nations position that eventually returned him to New York as a TV producer.
He left the UN to start his own film company in 1964, and William Greaves Productions has been thriving ever since. Other accomplishments include two years as executive producer and cohost of the TV series ``Black Journal,'' production credit on a feature film starring Sidney Poitier and Cicely Tyson, and authorship of more than 100 songs recorded by artists from Eartha Kitt to Al Hibbler. Yet he was not too busy for family life with his wife (who often collaborates on his films) and children.
AS the title of the Brooklyn Museum show suggests, Greaves has focused most of his attention on African-American history and culture. His film biographies include ``Frederick Douglass: An American Life'' and ``Booker T. Washington: The Life and the Legacy,'' while his examinations of African-American issues range from ``Black Power in America: Myth ... or Reality?'' to ``Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice'' and the acclaimed ``From These Roots,'' a study of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Greaves has also dipped into narrative and shown a gift for experimentation, as in the amazing work that opened the retrospective - a 1968 mixture of drama, comedy, and cin'ema v'erit'e bearing the decidedly avant-garde title of ``Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One.''
Not every Greaves film is an underappreciated gem. His attempts at docudrama, as in the Frederick Douglass biography, can be stilted and unconvincing; and his historical studies don't always bring out the full complexity of their subjects. But Greaves's conviction is never in doubt, and his best films - such as ``Symbiopsychotaxiplasm,'' with its biting wit, and ``From These Roots,'' with its compelling atmosphere - are models of their genres. The Brooklyn show finds him still going strong, preparing do cumentaries and features including ``The Sweet Flypaper of Life,'' based on a book by Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes.