David Sterritt, film critic of The
Christian Science Monitor and former chair of the New York
Film Critics Association, is professor of Film Studies at
Long Island University.
William Greaves is producer,
writer and director of "Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey"
STERRITT: This is a splendid piece of work. It's extraordinarily
clear and compelling and dramatic in its presentation of an
enormous amount of factual material and historical material,
which can easily become non-compelling and non-dramatic.
GREAVES: Oh, thats a big problem for a documentary
STERRITT: But this is engrossing,
beautifully put together, the variety of visual materials.
I think it's one of the rare cases where a documentary --
or a nonfiction film, if you prefer -- manages to combine
a really powerful presentation of material with an appealing
and engrossing approach so that it's actually fun to watch.
It's an entertaining movie, but at the same time, it's
a very serious and informative movie.
WILLIAM GREAVES: Thats what we were
hoping to accomplish. We knew the viewer had to become involved
viscerally as well as intellectually, in the content. However,
in this case, the problem was compounded by the fact that
we were doing a film about a scholar, a diplomat who thinks
and speaks in abstract terms and film, needless to say, is
a visual medium. Moreover, viewers are programmed -- conditioned
-- to think of film in entertainment terms. So it was a real
Sir Brian Urquhart
How did this project get started? Why Ralph Bunche?
part it was sheer serendipity. I was jogging in Central Park
one day and just happened to run into Lloyd Garrison, an old
friend of mine who was working at the Ford Foundation. We
stopped and chatted, and in the course of our conversation
he said, "Do you know anything about Bunche?" I said,
"Not as much as I should but I've always been very interested
in him." And he said, "Well, if you are really interested,
you might want to pitch the idea of doing a film about him
to Ford. They seem to be interested in him." Well, I also
found out that Brian Urquhart had an office at the Foundation
and he had just finished writing a biography of Ralph Bunche.
I pitched the idea of doing a film based on Sir Brians
book. The Ford Foundation went for it and that's how it got
started. But even though I'd always been intrigued by Bunche
I didn't know very much about him. I mean he had been world-renown,
but who was he really? How could a Black man, in pre-civil rights
America, attain this level of prominence? And then somehow be
forgotten. He was a mystery. He seemed to have functioned, in
a sense, "behind the veil". As a diplomat and international
civil servant at the UN, certainly, he became the consummate
insider. He didnt always show his hand and, of course,
thats what made him so effective. But how do you do a
film about this kind of inscrutability, about a reality that
is largely subtextual? What's going on between the lines? This
really fascinated me about Bunche. And, as we got deeper and
deeper into his story, we realized that he was moving with remarkable
assurance in the direction that he wanted to go, apparently
without anyone being aware of it.
STERRITT: Is there any particular phase of his life or
career that was your entry point, that you thought was the
most fascinating part for you? I mean, he was a scholar, he
was a diplomat. His work with the United Nations was hugely
important. Near the end of his life he was a civil rights
activist and so forth. Obviously, they're all important, and
obviously you deal with all those. Was there any one that
was the entry point for you, that was the quintessential Ralph
GREAVES: I suppose Id have to say that it was the
whole anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist, anti-fascist thrust
of his life that was the trigger for me. Its true a
lot of people struggle against these forces, but from the
outside. They march, protest, sign petitions. All this is
well and good. It helps to marshal public opinion, but public
opinion usually doesn't have much impact on those who are
inside the citadels of power. Sure, once in a while theres
a French Revolution, or an American Revolution, but holding
up placards and handing out leaflets rarely alters the course
of world history or changes the biography of a country.
took another approach. He understood how power worked and
how self-interested it was, and found ways to negotiate that
kind of terrain. He went inside the citadels of power. That
I found fascinating, that he could have the audacity -- the
chutzpah -- to move into this area and see what he could do
to effect change, to nudge and prod things along a path of
social, political and international progress. So that was
very interesting to me.
I have to admit, I connected with the fact that he was a high
achiever both academically and in sports, and that he overcame
so many barriers, racial, social and economic. He succeeded
against the odds. You have to say he had a competitive personality
and he seems to have gotten it from his family. Like Bunche,
I was brought up in a family that valued competition and excellence,
so I guess I identified with this aspect of his personality.
As a kid in Harlem I loved sports, boxed at the Y, played
basketball, competed in track and won medals in all three.
Went to Stuyvesant High School, the most competitive high
school in New York city, where I was in the top 10% of my
class, and then went on to win featured roles in Broadway
hits and in movies, auditioned for the Actors Studio and was
admitted as a member. Psychoanalytically speaking, I suppose
it's a neurotic need to succeed. But there was a certain resonance
between my background and Bunches except, of course,
he's Ralph Bunche, and I'm poor old Bill Greaves. [LAUGHTER]
DAVID STERRITT: Pretty important, too, just a different
GREAVES: Well, somehow this resonated with me. However,
even though I admired his commitment to excellence,
I was even more impressed with his concern for humanity.
Bunche combined intellect and idealism with action.
Very rare combination. He had a tremendous sense of
responsibility and a need to be of service to others.
I mean, it was a very strong thing with him, and my
feeling was that a film about this kind of social consciousness
might serve as a road map, a manual for other gifted
and talented individuals to do more, not only for themselves
but for society. The premise, of course, is that in
working for others youre ultimately helping yourself
which, I think, Bunche understood very clearly.
in Ralph Bunche Park
it was my hope that the film could be -- I don't want to say
educational -- but a motivator -- especially for young people,
and if it achieves that, that would be just great. There are
many, many talented young people out there but the big question
is will they use their knowledge, intelligence, and creativity
to help raise human consciousness and work for the improvement
of the human race???
STERRITT: Something else that really fascinated me in the
film -- and I'm just wondering about your observations on this,
both as now, perhaps, our leading authority on Bunche, or one
of our leading authorities on Bunche, and as a filmmaker who
had to assemble the movie -- the fascinating interaction between
the man -- who is Ralph Bunche, with his extraordinary talents
and abilities and motivations -- and the huge historical forces
that he's operating within. How do you go about capturing the
interaction between the individual and this huge, complicated
mid-century world situation, which is his field of operations?
GREAVES: Well, you put your finger on the crux of the
problem. How do you get a symbiosis or a dialectic going between
Bunche and the sprawling world scene? We wrestled with that
a great deal, and the trick, of course, was to find the underlying
connecting links. This was the bridge -- the glue -- that
would connect the individual to the historical events and
them to him. Of course, we had to stay focused on those events
in which Bunche was involved, be it philosophically or politically
or psychologically, or hopefully, all three. But even within
this framework, we still had to let go of a lot of important
stuff. For example, we dont deal with the atomic bomb,
which affected not only Bunches thinking but was a major
factor in the post-war world. Time was a constraint, too,
I should add.
when we started out doing the research, and we began to discover
more and more about Bunche, it gradually dawned on us that
we had underestimated this mans importance. Heres
a story thats never been told and theres a huge
historical canvas, and its very relevant for the 21st
century. We realized this material deserved a more extensive,
in-depth treatment. It cried out for a series treatment. In
fact, we wondered how we could do justice to Bunche, even
in a six hour series. But there were problems getting the
completion funding for such a series so, in the end, we had
to cut it to two hours in order to finish it and get it on
television as a PBS prime time special. But for a long time
we just kept trying to complete it as a series. We were lucky
that the funders all stood by us as we wrestled with the material,
trying to get it down to a shorter length, once we realized
that we werent going to get the funding to put it on
television as a 6 part series. In the final analysis, the
film was put through several completely different versions,
a six hour rough cut, a four hour, and a three hour fine cut.
But getting the story down to two hours was brutal. The interesting
thing is that the film works very well at this length! Which
proves, I guess, that theres probably a creative solution
for every problem, if you work at it hard and long enough.
And I have to admit that the two hour version gets to the
essence of Bunche. Once in a while we get a complaint that
a piece of the story is missing. But most audiences are amazed
at the amount of information we did manage to convey. On the
other hand, we know what was left on the cutting room floor
and we are planning to finish the four hour version, assuming
we can get the completion funds for it. It will tell the Bunche
story in greater depth because it will include some very important
material that doesnt appear in the current version at
all. For example, it will not only include the atomic bomb
but will show Bunches role in the setting up of the
International Atomic Energy Agency, which attempts to find
peaceful, rather than destructive, uses for atomic energy.
It will look at the Vietnam War, Bunches role in the
passage of Eleanor Roosevelts Universal Declaration
of Human Rights, his immense contribution to the Myrdal study
of the ugliness of racism in America and its destructive impact
on Black America which resulted in the landmark book An
American Dilemma. I don't know if I've answered your --