WILLIAM GREAVES: Now that the film is finished and it is getting such positive reactions, I realize just how fortunate we were to have had the backing of funders like the Ford Foundation. I often say that the making of this film was an odyssey in itself, for the producers in any case, that is my wife, Louise, and me. But considering all the problems that this production ran into, I’m sure it was an odyssey for the funders, as well. But they stuck by us through it all because they recognized that this was an important project. The experience also proved to me that you mustn’t give up. Sure, it took much longer than we expected but in the end the perseverance over time paid off. Unfortunately, not every filmmaker has this kind of luck and funding support. The extended time needed to produce a complicated film like the Ralph Bunche story can create havoc with a budget if the focus is strictly on the bottom line, and on the timeline. In fact, we shouldn’t be surprised if most serious films and television programs lack substance. Very few filmmakers, especially independent filmmakers, can afford to spend the time needed to work out bugs and come up with creative solutions to difficult production problems. We were able to give Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey the attention it deserved because we had the support of institutions and individuals who believed in the importance of the project. In addition to the Ford Foundation, it had the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the MacArthur Foundation, and Bill and Camille Cosby, as well as some smaller supporters like the National Black Programming Consortium.

William Greaves and Amiri Baraka

DAVID STERRITT: Any other thoughts?

WILLIAM GREAVES: There was an article in the New York Times recently about documentary film being the most difficult to find funding for. What may save the situation is the digital revolution, where everything, including equipment is now a fraction of what it used to cost. Today it's economically possible for a lot more people to make a personal statement on film if they decide to go digital.



DAVID STERRITT: That's going to change things enormously.

WILLIAM GREAVES: Yeah, but the problem of distribution is still a major one. In any case, I just wanted to mention the road that we had to travel to get the money: writing innumerable proposals, writing and rewriting and rewriting the script. I mean, the script itself was brutal because we were hoping to get the backing of the National Endowment for the Humanities which is an awesome challenge for an independent filmmaker with limited financial resources, because these folks at NEH are oriented primarily to scholarship so you have to jump through many hoops of scholarship if you hope to get your proposal considered. And then there is the biggest and final hoop to jump through, the final panel of scholars and experts who meet at the NEH headquarters to discuss and evaluate your project. The whole process is terribly nerve wracking and exhausting.

DAVID STERRITT: I knew you were going to say something like that.

WILLIAM GREAVES: But the scholars and experts do keep you on track, partly by throwing spitballs at you if you wander off of it. Fortunately, we had a program officer down there at NEH, a woman named Barbara Sirota who was very supportive and knew that we had to get the script up to a certain level of expertise, or we simply weren't going to be in the running for a grant. And, thankfully, she just kept pushing us and pushing us until we got it right. In any case, the time, money and energy deployed in raising the money was awesome, but that was only the beginning. The amount of research we poured into it was incredible, partly because we had planned to produce a series. We have looked at thousands of photographs to get to what you saw in the film; we screened hundreds of thousands of feet of stock footage, of newsreel footage, all kinds of vintage footage, and then hundreds of newspapers, and maps and graphics, although we did our own animation. Listening for hours to the sound recordings of historical events. We knew that out of all this material we gathered, only a very small fraction would end up in the final product. In fact, Andrea Taylor, the program officer at the Ford Foundation, put a lot of pressure on us also. She told me that the reason that Ford decided to back us in this production is that they expected us to win awards for this film. That I was not to take a vacation until I had brought it to award-winning level. Not that we needed reminding.

DAVID STERRITT: Yeah, I can well imagine. Let me ask what will be my last official question, and then we'll see if there's anything that we haven't touched on that you’d like to comment on.


DAVID STERRITT: Does a film like this have the ability to change our society -- society is a heavy word. Let me rephrase the question. What influence can a film like this have?

WILLIAM GREAVES: When I first came into filmmaking, I had read a book by a man named John Grierson, called Grierson on Documentary and it influenced me greatly in my decision to leave the theater where I had been an actor and become a filmmaker. I had been studying African American history, how Black people came to this country, etc. and I became aware of the ancient African civilizations going back thousands of years, how significant they were and I realized we, the American people, had been shortchanged by the academic, political and media gatekeepers in American society. We -- in particular Black people -- had been taught to believe that there was no history or civilizations in Africa, that Africans were just a bunch of savages running around in the bushes. And here comes John Grierson claiming that film, documentary film, was an educational tool, a force that could change the attitudes, and thinking of large masses of people, and could change social and political policies. Well, I bought into that. I said, "I'm going to make films that will correct those awful stereotypical images that are constantly being thrown up on the screens of America and the rest of the world ridiculing Black people and other people of color." I thought I would have a real impact, but I soon came to terms with the fact that my films were not going to change the world, only in the sense that they were like raindrops falling on a stone that can have some impact over time. Humanity, like a stone, is pretty intractable material, very slow to change. Of course, it took God trillions of years to bring humanity to this point, which puts things in perspective.

So, to answer your question, I see film as an opportunity to create an experience that audiences will enjoy, but I also see it as an opportunity to inspire and encourage people to become those better things that, in their heart of hearts, they would prefer to be. And the Bunche story is nothing, if not inspiring. For example, I screened the film at Morehouse College, in Atlanta to an audience of 600 or 700 young black male undergraduates, and they were mesmerized by the film. You could hear a pin drop. It occurred to me that some of these young people might leave the auditorium, leave Morehouse inspired by Ralph Bunche’s life story. At Spelman College in Atlanta, where I also showed the film, a young Black woman student came up to me and said "Mr. Greaves, I enjoyed the film. It taught me a lot of things I didn't know and it was really inspiring. I want you to remember me, because I'm going to be President of the United States someday" that was audacious, but it told me that the film had had an impact; that this raindrop had changed her thinking and maybe her life. Maybe.