An innovator, a scientist, a creator of worlds, the great William Greaves passed away today at age 87. The Harlem born Greaves’ journey into the world of film began when he joined American Negro Theatre which eventually lead to his joining The Actor’s Studio. Greaves quickly became unsettled upon his realization that there were no good roles for black people in the world of film and theater. This lead to Greaves seeking his cinematic education in Canada where he took advantage of their more BASED approach to the arts, education, and equality. Greaves directed a film called Emergency Ward and based off the strength of this film he was hired by the United Nations and the film division of the United States Information Agency to make several documentaries (Wealth of a Nation, and The First World Festival of Negro Arts being the most well known of the bunch). During the late 60’s he found himself as the co-host and later executive producer of the series Black Journal which was an integral part of the development of black affairs on television and in the general media (airing on National Education Television). His work on Black Journal also yielded Greaves a win at the Emmys.
One of the main points of what makes William Greaves relevant was his foray into BASED cinema with the 1968 art film Symbiopsychotaxiplasm. A psychedelic journey of meta filmmaking shot in New York’s Central Park. Greaves creates a giant circular meta-documentary featuring a documentary, a documentary about a documentary, and a documentary documenting a documentary about a documentary and all in the attempt of creating and capturing reality on film. The piece serves as an experiment in not only film, but psyche, texture and balance. An example of the experimentation at work is all in how the film was constructed. As the piece goes on, the various film crews that worked on the piece start to grow irritated at what they perceive is an incompetent and sexist director in Greaves. Torn between whether or not this entire situation is facsimile by Greaves (or not), the crews find themselves divided against their director. Their doubts, insecurities, complaints and weakness are captured on film and makes it into the final product.
The film languished in a life of film festivals and museums and private screenings due to a lack of distribution. In the early 2000’s distribution was finally found, and eventually a sequel made, using original cast members, and picking up where they left off in terms of dialogue, element and psyche. The BASED arts are a special thing, and this film along with the life of William Greaves are an exemplary example of what creativity and expression are all about. Criterion was good enough to restore and re-issue the film in a beautiful 2 disc special edition. Below is a short documentary on the history of black cinema and Greaves gives his BASED perspective and insight. Art never dies, and now Mr. Greaves will remain empowered spiritually as he has empowered us. Psyche.