William Greaves: Filmmaking as Mission

Columbia Univ. Jun. 2021. 496p. ed. by Scott MacDonald & Jacqueline Najuma Stewart. ISBN 9780231199582. $145; pap. ISBN 9780231199599. $35. FILM
William Greaves (1926–2014) was a prolific independent documentary filmmaker whose achievements have gone largely unsung. Born in Harlem, Greaves, who was Black, joined the Actors Studio and performed on stage and television in the 1940s. The increasingly two-dimensional roles available to Black actors eventually compelled Greaves to leave the U.S. for Canada, where he broadened his career goals and began to hone his craft as a filmmaker. Greaves soon focused his artistic energies on furthering the U.S. civil rights movement. In 1963 Greaves returned to the States, where he continued to make films and in 1969 earned an Emmy for his work on television’s Black Journal (a news program geared toward Black audiences). The present collection of essays, compiled by MacDonald (art history, director of cinema and media studies, Hamilton Coll.) and Stewart (cinema and media studies, director of Arts + Public Life, Univ. of Chicago), examines some of Greaves’s 200-plus films and considers his experiences as a Black American filmmaker. It offers an extended study and appreciation of his most famous work, 1968’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One. In this experimental documentary film, Greaves played the role of contentious filmmaker, surrounded by a cast who were unaware that he was acting a part.
VERDICT Combining critical essays by filmmakers and academics and fascinating articles by Greaves, this is an important addition to the history of American filmmaking.
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