Filmmaker William Miles, 1931-2013

17 May
Filmmaker William Miles at the Film & Media Archive - Washington University

Filmmaker William Miles at the Washington University Film & Media Archive

Filmmaker William Miles has died at the age of  eighty-two in New York.

William Miles was born in Harlem, New York in 1931 and became a documentary filmmaker whose work focused on the cultural experience and achievements of African-Americans. The subjects of his films ranged from the unique history of Harlem, to the under-reported contributions of African-Americans in the military, the space program, sports, and their role in migration out to the West of the United States.

As a young boy, Miles lived across the street from the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, and was aware of the vibrant African-American culture and equally aware of how the media of the dominant culture ignored contributions by African-Americans.

During a visit to the filmmaker archive shortly after the Film & Media Archive at  Washington University acquired his collection in 2005, he talked of going to the movies as a young boy and asking, “Where are our stories?” This question led him on a life-long pursuit to bring the stories of African-Americans to the screen. Materials from the collection include interviews, stock footage, manuscripts, correspondence and a large collection of photographs.

In honor of Mr. Miles the Film & Media Archive created an essay contest and prize. The William Miles Prize is awarded to the best undergraduate or graduate research paper that utilizes primary source material from the Archive.

William Miles worked for 25 years restoring archival films and early feature classics for Killiam Shows, Inc. and the Walter Reade Organization in New York City, and this experience led to his work as an independent directory and producer of documentary films. Based at Thirteen/WNET in New York City, he wanted to document the rich history of Harlem, and to highlight little-known stories of African American achievements in the military, the arts, sports, and in aerospace and exploration.

His first major production was Men of Bronze (1977), the little-know story of the African American soldiers of the 369th combat regiment, from Harlem, who fought with the French army in World War I. Denied the right to fight in the American forces, the regiment chose to fight with the French, and at the end of the war were awarded high military honors from the French government.

I Remember Harlem (1981), was a four-part series on the history of Harlem, from its beginnings in the 17th century to the early 1980s. With segments on the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Depression in Harlem, the civil rights movement including Malcolm X’s time in Harlem, and the challenges and problems of the 1970s, I Remember Harlem, is a comprehensive look at the rich and unique history of this borough.

Mr. and Mrs. Miles view newly arrived manuscript boxes from the William Miles Collection at the Film & Media Archive - Washington University.

Mr. and Mrs. Miles view newly arrived manuscript boxes from the William Miles Collection at the Film & Media Archive – Washington University.

Other major films by Miles are The Different Drummer: Blacks in the Military ( 1983), Black Champions (1986), Black Stars in Orbit (1990) Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II (1992),  and The Black West (date).  Miles also co-produced James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket (1989) an episode of PBS’s American Masters series about the American writer.

Miles won an Emmy Award, was nominated for an Academy Award, and was inducted into the Black Filmmaker’s Hall of Fame. He also received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF) for his outstanding contributions to the history of African Americans in the medium of film.

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2 Responses to “Filmmaker William Miles, 1931-2013”

  1. Lowell Thompson May 22, 2013 at 9:50 am #

    WAM! What A Man!

    I stumbled across Mr. Mile’s masterful film, “Men of Bronze” about 18 years ago. As an AfrAmerican adman, it was an introduction to my history and my future.

    I became a “recovering adman”, using the same creativity and skill to sell our nation on living up to its much-ignored promises of equality, in part because of Mr. Miles.

    I couldn’t be sadder that he died. But I also couldn’t be “gladder” that he lived.

    Lowell “RaceMan” Thompson

    • wufilmarchive May 24, 2013 at 9:14 am #

      Thanks for your comment! Mr. Miles was a great filmmaker and storyteller. In film, certainly, but we were lucky enough to have him visit the Film & Media Archive soon after we received his collection here and he was a fascinating person with so many stories of New York and Harlem. He will be greatly missed by many people, but we are lucky to have his films and work to revisit.

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