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Reality Ink: A Review of ‘William Greaves: Filmmaking as Mission’

By Cynthia Close

Greaves wearing a black hat with a blue jean jacket and blue jeans, with cast and crew in Central Park during shooting of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 1⁄2 (2003).

Greaves, cast, and crew in Central Park during shooting of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm:
Take 2 1⁄2 (2003). Courtesy of Louise Greaves.

The pioneering American filmmaker William Greaves (1926–2014) produced, directed, shot, and edited more than 100 experimental, documentary, and social issue–based films. His four Emmy nominations cap a lifetime as a successful songwriter, dancer, and actor; he was a member of the Actors Studio and had featured roles in independent, Black-cast movies of the late 1940s. A comprehensive book on the career of this charismatic, multidimensional figure was long overdue. With the help and full cooperation of Bill’s widow, Louise Archambault Greaves, Scott MacDonald, and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart took up the challenge. Even with the pedigree of prolific author and educator MacDonald, the high profile of Najuma Stewart, host of “Silent Sunday Nights” on Turner Classic Movies, and the eagerness of scholars like Henry Louis Gates Jr., who called Greaves “an American master,” it took the editors 10 years to bring William Greaves: Filmmaking as Mission to fruition.

Perhaps the breadth of Greaves’s creative endeavors, along with their many firsts, made prior attempts to document his life too daunting. The goal of this book, as MacDonald indicates in the preface, is to “provide scholars with a foundational context for exploring his many films. The book’s structure and design have been conceived in the hope of evoking both the multifaceted nature of his accomplishments and some of the many angles from which these accomplishments can be assessed.” I found this book to be engaging on a very elemental, human level. Combining the diverse voices speaking about Greaves, the voice of Greaves himself, who as a lifelong New Yorker born in 1926 felt the impact of apartheid America of the 1930s and 1940s, and the wonderfully intimate photos from the family albums of Louise Greaves, William Greaves provides many points of accessing this complex and undervalued artist.

In the preface, “William Greaves: Renaissance Man and Race Man,” Stewart and MacDonald describe Greaves growing up in Harlem as one of seven children. An early academic high achiever, he entered City College of New York seemingly headed for a career in science and engineering. He was also blessed with striking good looks. Both attributes, combined with a significant creative drive, led him to drop out of college and try the performing arts. He had several potential career options as a dancer, performing with Pearl Primus at Carnegie Hall, as an actor on Broadway, and as a successful songwriter whose music was recorded by major artists. MacDonald indicates that this aspect of Greaves’s early career still demands more attention than they were able to cover in the book.

William Greaves is a compilation of essays and interviews by those who knew or worked with him, including commentary by New Yorker film critic Richard Brody and analyses of his work by academics like Adam Knee, a dean at Singapore’s Lasalle College of the Arts, and Charles Musser, a professor of media and film studies at Yale. In the book’s first essay, Knee and Musser discuss Greaves’s acting career. Although racism was rampant, “Greaves himself moved easily between the white and black worlds. After acting in such [American Negro Theater] productions as Owen Dodson’s Garden of Time and Henri Christophe, he appeared in Finian’s Rainbow, which began a two-year run on Broadway in 1947… [In 1948] he became a member of the Actors Studio alongside Marlon Brando, Shelley Winters, Eli Wallach, and others.” Despite acceptance by his illustrious peers, it was the demeaning roles offered to him (and all Black actors in general) that led him to quit acting in 1950, when he was assigned the stereotypical role of a bumbling porter in the Broadway revival of Twentieth Century. Here is Greaves’s retelling of that pivotal incident.

All I knew was that I had built up a little reputation and my agent said, “You have a part.” So, I reported to the theater. And then I saw this goddamn dialogue which they put in my hand and Ferrer said, “You’re going to be this Uncle Tom type.” I just walked out. Whenever that kind of role came up, I would never play it, because it was just too demeaning. Actually, that was the final straw. That was the thing that made me realize I have to get on the other side of the camera because they were messing with the image of black people with impunity.

By 1952, Greaves had enough of both McCarthyism in America and the exclusionary practices of the motion picture industry, so he moved to Canada, where he encountered John Grierson and made a new home for himself at the National Film Board of Canada. In 1958, under the auspices of the NFB, he directed and edited the 30-minute black-and-white documentary Emergency Ward. Incorporating a cinema verité approach with more formal elements, this film documents events in a Montreal hospital ER on a typical Sunday night and predates Frederick Wiseman’s 1970 film Hospital. As race relations became the lightning rod for civil disobedience in the United States in the 1960s, Greaves saw it as an opportunity to return to the U.S. and contribute to the movement of Black power and Black identity by making films and television programs that explored Black history and culture. In 1963, Greaves, now accompanied by his wife, Louise, moved back to New York.

Still a Brother: Inside the Negro Middle Class, a 90-minute doc Greaves made in 1967 for National Educational Television (NET), looks at the danger of passive acceptance of white-middle-class values by Black people. It aired on PBS in 1968 despite NET execs’ fear of repercussions, receiving an Emmy nomination and other awards. An essay (originally published by Documentary Magazine in 1989) from the filmmaker St. Clair Bourne, whose career began in 1968 when Greaves was executive director at the PBS television series Black Journal, describes some of the internal machinations between the production side and the funding side of their programming. Born in response to the aftermath of the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., Black Journal broke new ground on public television, but internal disagreements and funding cuts led to its demise. Greaves, who had founded his own production company, William Greaves Productions, resigned from the series. 

The book positions Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One as the most significant film made by Greaves. Shot in 1968, it remained undiscovered until curator and Hunter College professor Dara Meyers-Kingsley made it the opening film in the Brooklyn Museum’s 1991 retrospective of Greaves’s work. Since then, it has reached cult status, becoming the philosophical center of discussions about the impact of filmmaking on those who make films. As MacDonald explains, “‘Symbiotaxiplasm’ is social scientist Arthur Bentley’s term for any group of people and whatever impinges on them. Greaves wanted to explore the psychology of a cast and crew during the shooting of a film in a public place and inserted “psycho” into Bentley’s term. The title was, at least implicitly, a warning that the film was something new and unusual.” Stephen Soderbergh became a huge fan and secured screenings at New York’s IFC Center in October and November 2005. Soderbergh and actor Steve Buscemi even produced a follow-up project, bringing together actors and crew from the original production to make Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 ½ in 2005. The book includes a complete dossier on both projects.

The strength and power of this volume lie in the prodigious use of Greaves’s own words throughout. At times it feels like a memoir. The second chapter, by Scott MacDonald, titled “Meta-interview with William Greaves (an Audiobiography),” combines “a wide range of interviews—in-print interviews, transcriptions of interviews Bill gave to various institutions—into a meta-interview, an ‘audiobiography.’ Ten of Greaves’s own writings (most never before published) are included, along with the most complete filmography and bibliography.” 

The impressive number of historical facts compiled in the 460 pages of this book makes it a must-have for the libraries of every major institution. Alongside Greaves’s own words, interviews with Louise Greaves and their son David Greaves add texture and intimacy.

Included in the book is a powerful essay written by Greaves attacking the lack of truth-telling in American TV programming. Published in 1970 in the New York Times, it opens:

I am a furious Black. Over the last year, in Harlem alone, over 100 teenagers died from overdoses of drugs. I also learned with horror that roughly four-fifths of a major American city’s white population voted for a white candidate whose underworld connections are thought to be extensive rather than see an honorable Black man attain that office... After their second trip into space, a couple of astronauts have reported a progressive deterioration due to pollution of the earth's atmosphere. Oh, hell, the list is endless.

In the end, Greaves saw a way out of a bleak future if more Black producers could offer a more candid and truthful vision of America via television. Perhaps his vision is in the works today.

Cynthia Close is the former executive director and president of Documentary Educational Resources and former contributing editor for Documentary Magazine. She serves on the advisory board of the Vermont International Film Festival and writes about visual art and culture for several publications.