- I had the pleasure of working with Bill Miles closely on his first two film projects, but we were friends for fifty years. He died on May 12, 2013.
- At the New York Film Festival in 1977, at a time when many held the military and even patriotism in low esteem, more than a few in the audience of generally anti-war film buffs found themselves moved to tears by the patriotic spirit expressed in a first film by African-American filmmaker William Miles. Called “Men of Bronze”, it was about an infantry regiment from Harlem that, along with three others, served as an integral part of the French Army in World War One. That was because the U.S. Army wanted blacks to serve as labor troops, whereas the French needed reinforcements. For many in the audience it may have been the first time in a long while that a love of country had been tapped, and it was done by unwanted black troops in what, under Miles’ direction, became a startlingly good-natured, upbeat attack on American racism. The film went on to repeated broadcasts on PBS and led to Miles’ four-part history of Harlem’s first 370 years, “I Remember Harlem”, another classic of black history.
- William Miles became a resident producer at Channel 13, covered many other forgotten chapters of black history from sports to space, and won numerous awards that include an Emmy, the Alfred I. Dupont-Columbia Award, an Oscar nomination, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers. His work continues to be seen by PBS viewers, students, and schoolchildren around the country. He always regarded the children as his most important audience.
- Bill was born August 19, 1931, on Harlem’s 126th Street, directly behind the Apollo Theater. As a young kid he helped the movie projectionist re-wind the films. A graduate of the Benjamin Franklin High School, he found work downtown in the shipping department of a distributor of educational films called Sterling Television. Next door was a company called Killiam Shows that restored and re-issued silent classics, where Bill learned the mechanics of film editing.
- At 17 he had joined a National Guard unit in Harlem. It was only years later through the accident of an open door that Bill discovered that a “library” otherwise off limits seemed to be full of flags, helmets, and photos. He got special permission to take a look one weekend, and discovered that his National Guard unit had had an apparently glorious and heroic history, but now had a lot of dusty and curling photos. It was the direct descendant of the “369th”, the Harlem Hellfighters of World War One. With the cooperation of a sergeant, Bill was able to organize a fund-raising ball in order to buy paint and picture frames to make the collection presentable. Among old newspaper clippings was an Armistice Day photo of a black soldier in Paris waving an American flag. Since Miles worked with archival films, he thought the flagwaver might be on film somewhere.
- When he had saved enough money he spent his two-week vacation at the National Archives in Washington, and found the flagwaver and a lot of other beautifully-preserved 35mm film on the 369th. It took a couple of years to save enough to spend another vacation in D.C. and to purchase for starters a small sampling of this treasure trove in 16mm. But then came the skeptics, who, for a variety of reasons, especially during and just after the Vietnam War, saw little potential in the project. I was among them.
- One day Bill accosted some elderly chess players on upper Broadway to ask whether by any chance one of them knew anyone who had been with the 369th, and one of them did. And that’s when “Men of Bronze” started rolling.
- Bill had also found – in an office just a few blocks from Killiam’s – one of the regiment’s original white officers, Hamilton Fish II, who had later become a prominent Congressman. Fish had pushed through a bill to construct a monument to the black troops, but did not know what ultimately came of it. So Bill took another trip to Washington to visit the Battle Monuments Commission, which had no record of such a monument but invited Mr. Miles to come down for a look. Cartons of 8-by-10s had been pulled out for him, and in a long-shot of an obelisk in France Bill noticed a tiny spot near its base and then saw that this was a bas-relief of a French helmet. The Commission had assumed this indicated a French unit, but Bill knew that it had become the insignia of the regiment when it was incorporated into the French Fourth Army. The Commission had not quite finished giving the obelisk a scrub-down when Bill and I arrived to film it for “Men of Bronze”.
- Besides his own films, Bill co-produced Karen Thorsen’s highly regarded 1989 portrait, “James Baldwin: the Price of the Ticket.” His next film “Liberators”, co-directed with Nina Rosenblum, documented the role of a black tank battalion in World War Two that took part in the liberation of concentration camp survivors. The film was simultaneously premiered at the Apollo and on PBS as a catalyst for dialogue throughout the city during racial tensions in Crown Heights. Attacked by some for alleged inaccuracies, it received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary.
- Before and during his creative film work, Bill – who lived in Hollis, Queens, with his wife Gloria and daughters Brenda and Deborah – was an active member of local initiatives like the United Block Association (organized among other things to help those wives who cleaned offices to get home safely at night) and a summer basketball league for the kids. In 1995, prompted by the story of a young boy’s death in rural Nepal, Bill lent his support to fund-raising efforts to build a hospital where there had been none before.
- Bill remained active, though retired, in preserving the history of the 369th at the National Guard armory on 135th Street by the FDR Drive. And as long as his health permitted, he was a frequent speaker at showings of his films and numerous award ceremonies around the country. His instincts as a photo researcher really paid off one day when he was nostalgically browsing through Manhattan’s municipal archives of official 1930s photos of its streets. He found his own long-since demolished house behind the Apollo, and there in an upstairs window, looking out at the view, was his mother.
Documentary Filmmaker William Miles, 82,
Brought Lost Chapters of Black History to Life
By Richard Ware Adams
Dick Adams & Bill Miles shooting "I Remember Harlem"
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