William Greaves, documentary filmmaker and Black Journal EP, dies at 87

By Andrew Lapin

William Greaves, a documentary filmmaker and executive producer and co-host of a pioneering public TV show for African-Americans, died Monday at his home in Manhattan, according to the New York Times. He was 87.

Greaves worked as a stage and screen actor and dancer in the 1940s and ’50s and appeared in productions staged on Broadway and by the American Negro Theater. He spent most of the ’50s working as a documentary filmmaker in Canada before returning to the U.S. to form William Greaves Productions in 1964. His early documentaries for public TV included a film about the black middle class.

Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, PBS precursor National Educational Television created Black Journal, a public-affairs program focused on African-American issues. Greaves, who started with the show as a co-host, became e.p. after several members of the program’s production staff protested NET’s hiring of a white head producer.

Greaves stayed with Black Journal until 1970, when he left to pursue independent filmmaking full-time. Over the next few decades, he directed and produced several short- and long-form documentaries that aired on public TV, including Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice (1989) and Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey (2001).

The filmmaker also gained attention for his 1968 documentary/fiction hybrid Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, an experimental film-within-a-film. Little seen after its release, the film reached new audiences after actor Steve Buscemi saw a screening in 1992. He and director Steven Soderbergh produced Greaves’s long-gestating sequel, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 ½, which was released in 2005. The following year, the films were released as a set on the prestigious Criterion Collection label.

“Quite simply, in 1968, there were at best a handful of African-American directors working in television and no African-Americans directing feature films,” film critic Amy Taubin wrote in an essay accompanying the Criterion release. “For an African-American director to make a feature film, let alone one as experimental as a film by Warhol or Godard, could not have been imagined if Greaves hadn’t gone out and done it.”

Greaves was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1980 and received a career achievement award from the International Documentary Association in 2005.

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