William Greaves

Hamilton College has received one of 96 FilmCraft and FilmWatch grants awarded by the Academy Foundation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2020. The award will be used for a film series to bring the career of William Greaves, “the most accomplished African-American filmmaker between the end of the ‘race film’ era in the 1940s and the arrival of ‘Blaxploitation’ and the ‘LA Rebellion’ in the 1970s,” to wider and more diverse audiences, according to Professor of Art History Scott MacDonald.

“The Academy’s Grants committee is honored to continue to provide much-needed support to these 96 worthy organizations – their impact on the world of film is truly immeasurable,” said Marcus Hu, chair of the Grants committee. California Institute of the Arts, Berklee College of Music, and Barnard College were the only other colleges that received funding.

According to MacDonald, Greaves was a member of the Actors Studio from 1948 and had featured roles in several of the last independent Black-cast “race movies” in the late 1940s. Against all odds, he would become one of the most prolific documentary filmmakers of his era and the most prolific African-American documentary filmmaker of all time.

Greaves came to understand his mission as filmmaker was to use filmmaking as part of the American Civil Rights movement. He was committed to documentary filmmaking, in particular, because he believed in the unique potential of documentary for transforming how European-Americans understood African-American life, history, and struggle, and for rehabilitating African Americans’ senses of identity and pride.

He produced often-award-winning films first for the United Nations, then for the United States Information Agency, and various governmental and corporate sponsors interested in supporting racially progressive work. Most of the Greaves films explored crucial events, situations, and personalities relating to African-American history, culture, and politics. Despite the fact that during the years when Greaves’s films were being produced, they regularly won awards and were fixtures in public and academic 16mm film libraries across the country, most of his many accomplishments remain under the current cultural and film-historical radar.

Presented as part of the Forum for Image and Language in Motion (F.I.L.M.) in spring 2021, the series will include 11 events. Sessions will present Greaves’ films and will be hosted by speakers with diverse backgrounds and special knowledge of a particular dimension of Greaves and his work. Speakers include a mix of scholars, relatives, collaborators, and filmmakers who have been influenced by him. MacDonald is working with faculty and the Days Massolo Center to make the films and speakers available to classes. Outreach to the Central New York community is also planned.

MacDonald has been involved with Greaves’ work since 1991, when Greaves’ film  Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One emerged, after 20 years, from a closet in Greaves studio. When Greaves had taken the film to the Cannes folks in 1971, the projectionist got the reels of the film confused, and the judges saw an already complex film, all mixed up, and passed on the film. When the film finally had premieres at Sundance and in New York City, “the film world was blown away and Symbio has become a canonical film-about-film...,” said MacDonald who has written about Greaves in the past and has finished a new book, William Greaves: Filmmaking as Mission, forthcoming with Columbia University Press.

In talking about this project MacDonald said, “I always hope my writing and interviewing will draw attention and a growing viewership to accomplished films/filmmakers they might not otherwise know about.” This series will certainly highlight the work of Greaves appropriately. 

This project also received funding via a Dietrich Inchworm grant. 

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