Film maker Bill Miles in tribute
Ron Scott | 5/31/2013, 11:51 a.m.
When the heavenly clock struck on May 12, signaling Bill Miles to come home, it was evident that his absence would leave a void in American society and a space that will be difficult to fill in the filmmaking of Black documentaries.
Before his great body of work, Miles was a gentleman, low-key with a mild, even-toned voice and warm smile. He was never one to pursue the limelight, but his exceptional documentaries earned him the lights, awards and many accolades that he so rightfully deserved.
Miles was born and raised in Harlem and graduated from Benjamin Franklin H.S., where musician Sonny Rollins also attended. Miles lived on 126th Street across from the Apollo Theater's performers' entrance, where happenings were aplenty. It was probably his many visits to the Apollo and occasional visits to the projectionist booth that gave him the filmmaking bug.
In conversations with Miles, a common topic was Harlem and its new surroundings. My interest was in his projects. He always had a work-in-progress, a subject he was researching or was attempting to get funds to complete a film.
He was a reservoir of information, a Black history orator. Like a West African griot, he shared his knowledge with friends and the community at various speaking engagements. Through his documentaries, he became a storyteller, enlightening viewers on the contributions of Black America.
As a documentarian, Miles was a warrior from the grassroots frontier who understood the concept of working on a tight shoestring budget. Despite the budget, once Miles infused his knowledge and personal perspective, the end result was a welcome contribution to the artistry of documentary filmmaking, which demonstrates why he won an Emmy and was nominated for an Academy Award.
It was Miles who introduced this writer to his film "Men of Bronze," the documentary on the 369th Infantry Regiment and its lieutenant, James Reese Europe. We discussed this subject at length on several occasions. Being so inspired by his enthusiasm about the 369th and Europe as a prominent bandleader and Army lieutenant, I eventually wrote a long feature on Europe.
"Men of Bronze," which aired on PBS, is one of the most significant documentaries ever made that focuses on WW I and the contribution of the 369th Infantry Regiment from Harlem. As the film points out, they were musicians handpicked by Europe and his friend Nobel Sissle, a violinist, composer and playwright. They joined the Army to play for the troops in France and were the first band to bring ragtime and jazz to that country.
The 369th were sent into battle even though they were never allowed to train with real weapons, as this was during segregation. Ironically, in the midst of battle, the musicians kicked butt, thus the name "the Harlem Hellfighters."
Today, 36 years later, "Men of Bronze" will give you chills when you watch those proud soldiers marching 16-across down Fifth Avenue through Harlem as kids waved and the ladies gave their best smiles.
His best-known work, a subject that he was never at a loss of words to discuss, was about his birthplace. The four-part series "I Remember Harlem" is one of the most comprehensive pieces on Harlem, featuring segments on its early history and settlement to the 1970s.