Author Topic: William Greaves, a Documentarian and Pioneering Journalist, Dies at 87  (Read 2160 times)

Offline Reginald Hudlin

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William Greaves, a Documentarian and Pioneering Journalist, Dies at 87
AUG. 26, 2014

William Greaves, a producer and director who helped bring an African-American perspective to mainstream America as a host of the groundbreaking television news program “Black Journal” and as a documentary filmmaker, died on Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 87.

His daughter-in-law Bernice Green confirmed his death.

Mr. Greaves was well known for his work as a documentarian focusing on racial issues and black historical figures. In his later years he was equally known for his most uncharacteristic film, “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One.” Made in 1968, it mixed fact and fiction in a complex film-within-a-film structure that made it a tough sell commercially, and it waited almost four decades for theatrical release. When it finally had one, in 2005, it was warmly praised as ahead of its time.

Mr. Greaves (rhymes with “leaves”) gained national recognition as a co-host and later executive producer of “Black Journal,” a monthly hourlong National Educational Television newsmagazine that made its debut in 1968 in response to a call by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to expand coverage of black affairs. It was the only nationally telecast series devoted to black issues in the 1960s.

William Greaves, 2nd right, Don Fellows and Patricia Ree Gilbert filming "Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One." Credit Jerry Pantzer
“By the acid test of professional and perceptive journalism, ‘Black Journal’ has earned its rightful niche as a continuing and absorbing feature of television’s output,” the television critic Jack Gould wrote in The New York Times in 1969. “Mr. Greaves is simply covering a story that should be covered and covering it with distinction.”

In 1970, “Black Journal” won an Emmy in the “magazine-type programming” category.

Later that year, Mr. Greaves left the program to pursue projects developed by his own production company. (He was replaced by Tony Brown, and the program was later renamed “Tony Brown’s Journal.”)

“The Fighters,” a feature-length documentary Mr. Greaves produced and directed about the 1971 Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight, was released theatrically in 1974. Writing in The Times, Vincent Canby called it “a first-rate film of its unprepossessing kind.”

He went on to write, produce or direct films including the well-received PBS documentaries “Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice” (1989) and “Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey” (2001), as well as explorations of contemporary political and cultural issues like “Black Power in America: Myth or Reality?” (1986) and “That’s Black Entertainment” (1989). His work won awards at numerous festivals.

William Garfield Greaves was born in Harlem on Oct. 8, 1926, one of seven children of Garfield Greaves, a taxi driver and minister, and the former Emily Muir. He won a scholarship to the Little Red Schoolhouse in Greenwich Village and later graduated from Stuyvesant High School.

His education continued at the City College of New York. Between 1944 and 1952 he tried his hand at boxing, dancing, songwriting and acting. He joined the American Negro Theater shortly after high school and, for a time, vied for roles with Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier.

He appeared on Broadway in “Finian’s Rainbow” (1947) and “Lost in the Stars” (1949) and in a few movies, among them “The Fight Never Ends” (1948), an independent production starring the boxing champion Joe Louis, and “Lost Boundaries” (1949), a Hollywood film about race relations. In 1948, he was accepted as a member of the Actors Studio, but he decided to forgo a promising acting career and became involved in production.

“I became infuriated by the racially degrading stereotypes that white film producers threw up on American screens,” he wrote in 1969. “It became clear to me that unless we black people began to produce information for screen and television there would always be a distortion of the ‘black image.’ ”

In 1950 he began working with Louis de Rochemont, a noted documentary filmmaker and the producer of “Lost Boundaries.” From 1952 to 1963 he lived in Canada and worked for the National Film Board of Canada as a writer, editor and producer.

He married Louise Archambault in August 1959. She survives him, as do their three children, David, Taiyi and Maiya Greaves; two brothers, Theodore and Donald; a sister, Ruth Evadne Brooks; three grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandchild.

Mr. Greaves produced short films for the United Nations and the United States Information Agency before forming his production company, in 1964. He first attracted attention as a filmmaker with “Still a Brother: Inside the Black Middle Class,” an examination of the barriers facing upwardly mobile blacks, which he produced for National Educational Television in 1968.

Around the same time he wrote, produced, directed and edited “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One.” An experimental layers-of-reality work, it involved two actors performing a scene in Central Park while being filmed by a crew that was itself being filmed by another crew, all of the action presided over by Mr. Greaves himself.

He was unable to find a distributor, and except for screenings in Paris and New York in 1980 it languished for more than 20 years. It was finally shown at the Brooklyn Museum and the Sundance Film Festival in the ’90s, but it was not seen in movie theaters until it opened, to glowing reviews, in 2005.

Manohla Dargis of The Times, while acknowledging that the film was in some ways dated, called it “highly entertaining and, at moments, revelatory about filmmaking as a site of creative tension between individual vision and collective endeavor.”

Other filmmakers took notice, among them Steven Soderbergh, who as executive producer (with the actor Steve Buscemi) helped Mr. Greaves complete a belated sequel, “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 ½” (2005). They are now available as a two-DVD set from the Criterion Collection.

In his later years, when asked about his achievements as a chronicler of black history and black life, Mr. Greaves was proud but modest. “I thought I was going to be a hurricane, but I ended up a becoming merely a single raindrop,” he once said. “Hopefully there are other raindrops of similar mind.”

Offline Battle

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Wednesday, 24th June  Twenty One
Black journalists developed an activist tradition because they had to
by Sid Bedingfield

In the mid-20th century, Walter Hussman Senior transformed a handful of small newspapers in southern Arkansas into one of the South’s most profitable media companies.

His son, Walter Hussman Jr., joined the family business in the 1970s and helped it gain control of two historically important Southern newspapers — the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette.

Now, as local and regional news outlets struggle to survive, the younger Hussman is giving back.

He is donating $25 million to the University of North Carolina’s school of journalism and media, a generous investment in the future of journalism that should have cemented the Hussman family’s honored place in Southern media.

But Hussman’s objection to the school’s hiring with tenure of Black journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones highlights a different legacy, one that pitted Southern newspapers like the Gazette and the Democrat against African American journalists like Hannah-Jones.

Hussman reportedly worried that Hannah-Jones’s investigative work appeared to be “trying to push an agenda.”

And it is.

But her agenda — to focus broad public attention on the enduring impact of slavery, Jim Crow and anti-Black racism — is merely a continuation of the long legacy of the Black press and its battle to save democracy in the United States.

This tradition flourished in the critical decades after the Civil War, when the promise of a pluralist, multiracial democracy appeared within reach.

This opportunity created a pitched battle between Black journalists, who demanded a fair and just “New America,” and many of their white counterparts, particularly those in the South.

Editors and publishers of newspapers like those Hussman’s family later bought worked closely with business and political allies to eliminate what they viewed as the threat of Black suffrage and to build the Jim Crow political economy that came to dominate Southern society.

Far from objective, the work of the Southern white press and its allies destroyed democracy in the South for nearly a century and crafted a racial hierarchy that infected modern America and endures today.

After the Civil War, the former enslavers who dominated the Democratic Party in the South launched their campaign against Black political equality using the only institutions they still controlled: their newspapers.

Those papers — which included the Gazette and the Democrat in Arkansas — did more than support Democratic Party propaganda in print.

White editors and publishers in the South were committed political actors who were deeply engaged in all aspects of the party’s campaigns to oust the biracial republican governments that emerged during Reconstruction.

In Mississippi, for example, the offices of Ethelbert Barksdale’s Jackson Clarion also served as an arms and ammunition depot for white militias that carried out murderous raids on Black communities.

At the same time, the Clarion’s news pages blamed the violence and chaos on the “weakness” of the republican government.

In the 1880s, after White violence precipitated the collapse of Reconstruction, Atlanta Constitution editor Henry W. Grady hailed the emergence of a “New South” where the races lived in harmony and business opportunities abounded.

Often considered a racial moderate, Grady actually led a Democratic Party ring that protected a convict lease system that rounded up Black men, women and children, often on trumped-up charges, and funneled them into railroad construction and other dangerous work.

In the 1890s, when a collapse in cotton prices fueled a populist backlash among poor farmers and briefly raised hopes of biracial political coalitions in the South, the Democrats and their business allies again turned to the white press.

In Alabama, editor and politician William Wallace Screws received a secret subsidy from the Louisville & Nashville Railroad to prop up his financially ailing Montgomery Daily Advertiser, the state’s largest newspaper.

In return, Screws launched a vicious campaign against a populist insurgency that had united white and Black farmers and industrial workers against the railroads, mining interests and big planters who controlled the state.

Frustrated populists claimed the Advertiser used the battle cry of white supremacy to “crush debate” and to “prevent discussion of economic ideas.”

In North Carolina, the situation was even worse.

Josephus Daniels used his newspaper, the Raleigh News & Observer, as the propaganda organ for the Democratic Party’s violent campaign to destroy a fragile alliance of Black republicans and white Populists, a biracial coalition that had gained control of the governor’s office, the state legislature and the municipal government in Wilmington.

The Democrats took back power through fraud and violence at the ballot box, and a rampaging white mob in Wilmington destroyed the offices of a Black daily newspaper, murdered dozens of the Black residents and forced hundreds of others to flee the city.

This attack on a Black newspaper was no coincidence.

The Black press had spent decades fighting against the campaigns by white newspapers and their allies, determined to force national public attention on the rise of Jim Crow and its impact on American democracy.

Most of this emerging Black public sphere emanated from the North — T. Thomas Fortune at the New York Age, W. Calvin Chase of the Washington Bee, Mary Church Terrell of the National Association of Colored Women.

Black voices delivered similar messages in the South, but at heightened risk.

white mobs and militias, often inflamed by the white press, silenced some of the South’s most potent Black journalists.

Among those forced to flee for their lives were Jesse Chisholm Duke in Alabama, Ida B. Wells in Tennessee, Alex Manly in North Carolina and J. Max Barber in Georgia.

The white Democrats won their quest to shape the New South, and their newspapers enjoyed the spoils of victory.

Like the Gazette and the Democrat, they lived long and prospered across the 20th century.

As the age of professional journalism emerged after World War I, most white Southern newspapers declared their allegiance to the new norms of objectivity and impartiality.

But while they claimed not to push an agenda, they continued the battle on behalf of white-supremacist rule and anti-Black racism.

In the 1920s, most Southern newspapers supported a domestic terrorist group known as the ku klux klan and its insidious call for “pure Americanism.”

In the 1930s, they supported Southern lawmakers who demanded the exclusion of Black workers from participation in Social Security and other New Deal programs.

And after World War II, when Black civil rights activism gained traction, white journalists like James J. Kilpatrick in Richmond and Thomas R. Waring in Charleston led the charge for “massive resistance” to integration.

Only late in the long and disastrous reign of Jim Crow did Harry Ashmore at the Gazette, Ralph McGill at the Atlanta Constitution and a few other Southern journalists begin to temper their papers’ support for segregation and second-class citizenship for Black Americans.

This history highlights why African American journalists have been compelled to advocate for Black equality.

They have often carried out their campaigns in the shadow of a much larger white press that was fighting for just the opposite.

And as Hannah-Jones has shown in her reporting, the success of those white journalists decades ago has ramifications today, as the legacy of Jim Crow continues to shape fundamental inequalities in American society.

Ironically, then, the history of newspapers eventually owned by the Hussman family explains why Hannah-Jones has an agenda today, and why she is carrying on the rich tradition of the Black press.