Wealth Comes in Many Forms: William Greaves’ USIA Films

This post was written by Criss Kovac. Criss is the supervisor of the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab. 

I’m fortunate that my job allows me to make a difference every day. Most days it’s because I’ve preserved a piece of history, made something accessible for research, or contributed to the archival community. It’s rare, however, that I see how my work has made a difference in the life of a single person. This past spring I had that chance along with the opportunity to bring attention to two great films and the life of their multifaceted and talented director. A simple request from the Film Society of Lincoln Center for a 16mm theater print of William Greaves’ Wealth of a Nation (1964) began it all.

NARA gets requests for theater prints on a regular basis, so I didn’t give much thought to it until, a couple of weeks after sending the print out, I received an email from Louise Greaves. She’d attended the screening at Lincoln Center and was delighted to know that her husband’s film was preserved at the National Archives as there wasn’t a copy in his personal archive.

William Greaves was a prominent African-American filmmaker and producer from the 1960s through the 2000s. He won an Emmy Award for the groundbreaking TV newsmagazine series Black Journal and is perhaps best known for his films Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (1968) and Ali, the Fighter (1971). Mr. Greaves began as an actor, becoming a member of The Actors Studio in 1948. His career led him everywhere from the National Film Board of Canada, to Africa, to India and around the world. One of the stops along the way was with the United States Information Agency (USIA).

The USIA’s primary goal was to promote understanding, “inform, and influence foreign publics in promotion of the U.S. national interest, and to broaden the dialogue between Americans and U.S. institutions and their counterparts abroad.” The USIA was particularly prolific in the 1950s and 1960s, during the post World War II period and throughout the Cold War. It was during this period, in the mid-1960s, that William Greaves produced and directed Wealth of a Nation (Local Identifier: 306.3957) and The First World Festival of Negro Arts (Local Identifer: 306.7725) for the USIA. NARA holds the original negatives for both of these titles along with 54 reels of outtakes for First World Festival.

Both films are beautifully shot and composed and highlight the joy found in personal and collective expression. Wealth of a Nation explores how freedom of speech is afforded to all Americans, showing freedom of expression in art, music, dance, architecture, and science. The film emphasizes the importance of the individual’s contribution to the whole of society and shows how a productive and creative society is formed by the open and respectful exchange of ideas.

The First World Festival of Negro Arts documents the 1966 festival in Dakar, Senegal, which was put on by UNESCO, with the participation of forty-five African, European, Caribbean, and North and South American countries. The festival featured black literature, music, theater, visual arts, film and dance. Greaves filmed international performers, along with American artists Duke Ellington, Alvin Ailey, and Langston Hughes.

Providing digital copies of the films to Louise Greaves for inclusion in her husband’s archive was an immensely rewarding experience.  NARA was also fortunate to gain more information about these two titles from Mrs. Greaves. In one email exchange she wrote, “Wealth of a Nation is not just a beautiful film, it is actually the first film that Bill made independently after he returned to the States. So, in effect, the USIA helped launch his career as an independent filmmaker. George Stevens, Jr. was the person in charge of the program at that time and deserves credit for having made this happen – a fact that Bill always referred to whenever he was asked how he started his career as an independent filmmaker.”

Louise was able to provide some production information for us as well – the 35mm copies of First World Festival of Negro Arts were likely released in black and white and 16mm copies of the film were released with a sepia tone (all of NARA’s copies are 35mm). Without our conversations with her, this information may have been lost.

Collaboration and an exchange of information helped bring to light the legacy of art and freedom of expression that William Greaves illustrates in these two films. Personal moments like these that make my job worth so much more to me. Being able to provide increased access to important content is part of the job, but being able to make an impact in the life of an individual is a gift.

Many thanks to Louise Greaves for filling in details and fact-checking this post. You can find out more about William Greaves at http://williamgreaves.com. Wealth of a Nation was screened at the National Archives’ McGowan Theater in Washington, D.C. September 10th, 2015.

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