Who was Ralph Bunche, and why should Americans care about his life? Bunche is a familiar name to anyone who read newspapers in the years after World War II, when he became Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, facilitated peace agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors, led a global fight against colonialism, and in 1950 became the first person of color to earn the Nobel Peace Prize.
He was also a civil rights activist who hailed from a working-class family in Detroit, and knew the suffering of black Americans all too well.
Bunche is less well known today, so it's fortunate that filmmaker William Greaves has decided to spotlight his name and accomplishments.
Greaves is a phenomenon himself. A gifted African-American artist who has directed movies on everything from prizefighter Muhammad Ali to the controversies of the black-power movement, he has also acted in Broadway and Hollywood productions, produced the award-winning "Black Journal" television series, and made appearances around the globe.
In addition, he's an adventurous avant-garde filmmaker whose legendary 1968 experiment "Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One" may soon acquire a sequel, which he's planning with actor Steve Buscemi.
So if anyone is up to Bunche's high standards for energy and achievement, Greaves is the one. His engrossing documentary "Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey" debuts on PBS tonight (check local listings), fresh from the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, where it was screened last month.
"Making this film ... was an odyssey in itself," Greaves said in a recent interview. "An odyssey in fundraising! The filmmaker approached about 200 foundations, between 300 to 400 corporations, and 100 black businesses.
The aspect of Bunche that most fascinated Greaves was his determination to use his talents in ways that would help others.
"I liked the commitment he had to excellence," Greaves says, "and the compassion he had for the downtrodden, and the need [he felt] to be of some value or service." Greaves's goal was to "resurrect this kind of consciousness ... and [provide] a road map, a manual for those individuals who are gifted and talented, and who really should do more for not only themselves but for society."
He hopes the movie will be "a persuader and a motivator for social commitment."
Greaves started the project with limited knowledge of what Bunche believed and accomplished during his lifetime. "He was popular," the filmmaker says, "but he was also inscrutable. He worked behind the veil, behind the scenes.... He was the consummate diplomat, and how do you do a film about this kind of secrecy, this kind of intellectual activity? What's going on between the lines?"
The secret, he says with a smile, was "an incredible amount of reflection and 'permutating' and 'combinating' all kinds of images and ideas - trying to experimentally look at options and devise new, quite different ones."
This involved much "wrestling with alternatives" as to what on-screen material - selected from mountains of texts, photos, film footage, and biographical information - would best convey Bunche's contributions. "Having thought about it, agonized over it, and lost sleep trying to solve these differential equations of thinking," Greaves says, "and after the physical labor of rearranging the material, one reaches a point where one is totally exhausted, and one relaxes and takes a deep breath, and decides to ... have faith, to go with the intuitive aspects of your consciousness. What are the mountain peaks of this film? What is it that viscerally affects you?"
On a professional level, Greaves gets that visceral feeling most strongly from "the whole anticolonialist thrust of his life, anti-imperialist, anti-Fascist.... Bunche understood how power worked and also understood how self-interested power is, and [he] found ways to negotiate that kind of terrain."
On a personal level, Greaves loves the fact that Bunche was a high achiever in many different areas. "I am relatively competitive in terms of my upbringing," the director confesses. "I used to box, I played basketball, I won medals in track, and then I went to Stuyvesant High School [a top-ranking New York science school] and was in the Top 10 percent of my class there, and went on Broadway and competed as an actor for parts in plays and movies, and got into the Actors Studio.
"You could say [this reveals] a very neurotic need to succeed. I prefer to think of it as a burning need to exceed my past work.... I just come from a family that treasured and valued achievement, so there was a certain amount of resonance between my background and his. Except that, of course, he's Ralph Bunche and I'm poor old William Greaves!"
Greaves knows a single movie can't change the world, but he sticks to his "poor old" guns because doing a little good is better than doing none at all.
When he was starting out, he recalls, "I thought I was going to be a hurricane, but I ended up becoming ... merely a single raindrop falling on a stone. You could say, 'It took God trillions of years to bring us to this point, and all you are is just another raindrop.' But hopefully there are other raindrops of similar mind impacting this stone, this intractable humanity. And over time ... this [human condition] will change.
"I see this film as an opportunity to enjoy cinema, but also as an opportunity to persuade people to become the things that, in their heart of hearts, they really prefer being. To see [Bunche] in action, making that kind of human effort, is very inspiring."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society