Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS


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"

DAVID 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.

WILLIAM GREAVES: Oh, that’s a big problem for a documentary filmmaker.

DAVID 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: That’s 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 challenge.

William Greaves with
Sir Brian Urquhart

DAVID STERRITT: How did this project get started? Why Ralph Bunche?

WILLIAM GREAVES: In 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.

  So I pitched the idea of doing a film based on Sir Brian’s 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 didn’t always show his hand and, of course, that’s 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.

DAVID 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 Bunche?

WILLIAM GREAVES: I suppose I’d have to say that it was the whole anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist, anti-fascist thrust of his life that was the trigger for me. It’s 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 there’s 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.


Bunche 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.

Also, 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 Bunche’s except, of course, he's Ralph Bunche, and I'm poor old Bill Greaves. [LAUGHTER]

DAVID STERRITT: Pretty important, too, just a different field.

WILLIAM 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 you’re ultimately helping yourself which, I think, Bunche understood very clearly.

Shooting in Ralph Bunche Park

  So 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???

DAVID 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?

WILLIAM 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 don’t deal with the atomic bomb, which affected not only Bunche’s thinking but was a major factor in the post-war world. Time was a constraint, too, I should add.

Actually, 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 man’s importance. Here’s a story that’s never been told and there’s a huge historical canvas, and it’s 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 weren’t 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 there’s 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 doesn’t appear in the current version at all. For example, it will not only include the atomic bomb but will show Bunche’s 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, Bunche’s role in the passage of Eleanor Roosevelt’s 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 --

Home | Early Influences | Scholar-Activist | Drive to Decolonize | Mr. UN
The Peacemaker | Man & the Myth | Timeline | Educational Resources
Making the Movie | Site Credits