William Miles, Maker of Films About Black History, Dies at 82
By BRUCE WEBER
Published: May 18, 2013
William Miles, a self-taught filmmaker whose documentaries revealed untold stories of black America, including those of its heroic black soldiers and of life in its signature neighborhood, Harlem, where he himself grew up, died on May 12 in Queens. He was 82.
Washington University Film and Media Archive
The cause was uncertain, but Mr. Miles had myriad health problems, including Parkinson’s disease and dementia, said his wife of 61 years, Gloria.
Mr. Miles was part historical sleuth, part preservationist, part bard. His films, which combined archival footage, still photographs and fresh interviews, were triumphs of curiosity and persistence in unearthing lost material about forgotten subjects.
His first important film, “Men of Bronze” (1977), was about the 369th Infantry Regiment, an all-black combat unit that the Army shipped overseas during World War I but, because of segregationist policies, fought under the flag of France. Serving with great distinction, the unit spent more time in the front-line trenches than any other American unit. Collectively, it was awarded the Croix de Guerre and came to be known as the Harlem Hellfighters and also the Black Rattlers.
The 369th began as the 15th New York National Guard Infantry Regiment, and decades later, after Mr. Miles had himself joined a National Guard unit in Harlem, he stumbled on a dusty storage room containing flags, helmets photographs and other relics from the 369th.
He subsequently found well-preserved film footage of the regiment at the National Archives, and he tracked down living members of the unit using a technique he often employed to generate information about the past: He walked the streets of Harlem, stopping where groups of elderly residents gathered to talk and started asking questions.
The film, which was shown on public television, depicted the black soldiers as fiercely patriotic and courageous while offering an oddly good-natured — and moving — critique of American racism.
Mr. Miles’s best-known work was “I Remember Harlem,” a four-hour historical portrait of the neighborhood that had its premiere on public television over four consecutive nights in 1981.
“I was walking around Harlem, where I grew up, and noticed how many of the old theaters and familiar buildings were missing,” Mr. Miles said in an interview in The New York Times, talking about his inspiration for the film. “I went back to my old elementary school, and on the next corner there was another man standing and looking at the building, too.”
The man, he realized, was an old classmate.
“He said to me, ‘I remember Harlem,’ and I thought: I remember Harlem, you remember Harlem, a lot of people remember Harlem.”
Born in Harlem on April 18, 1931, Mr. Miles grew up on West 126th Street, behind the Apollo Theater, where, as a teenager, he occasionally ran the film projector. He graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School and for a while attended City College.
As a young man, he worked downtown as a shipping clerk for a distributor of educational films and then at Killiam Shows, a company that restored silent films; there, Mr. Miles learned mechanical skills like repairing film and clipping segments for use in commercials. During this time he met Richard Adams, who also worked at Killiam, and who became a cameraman and film editor for several of Mr. Miles’s films, including “Men of Bronze.”
“Bill had collaborators of all kinds,” Mr. Adams wrote in an e-mail on Thursday, “but only he had the vision and the persistence, and a genius for spotting archival images.”
One of Mr. Miles’s films, “Liberators” (1992), about black army units that helped to free Nazi concentration camps at the end of World War II, was partly inspired by a letter he spotted in The Times from Benjamin Bender, a Jewish survivor of Buchenwald. “The recollections are still vivid — ” Mr. Bender wrote of the day of liberation, April 11, 1945, “black soldiers of the Third Army, tall and strong, crying like babies, carrying the emaciated bodies of the liberated prisoners.”
The film, produced and directed by Mr. Miles and Nina Rosenblum, was nominated for an Academy Award, but its accuracy was subsequently questioned. Its overall point of the film — that blacks who fought racism at home to be allowed to serve their country, then witnessed the discriminatory horrors of the Holocaust — was not in dispute, but critics said that the film went awry in giving credit to a particular unit, the 761st Tank Battalion, part of Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army, for the liberation of Dachau and Buchenwald. (The 761st was present at the liberation of the Gunskirchen camp in Austria.) Public television stations ceased showing the film.
In an interview on Wednesday, Ms. Rosenblum said they had discovered, too late, that one of the interviewees in the film had lied about being a liberator, but she defended the film as essentially accurate, saying that Army records were inconclusive and that Mr. Miles was a scrupulous documentarian who was shattered by the controversy. “It was the only film he ever made that had its veracity questioned,” Ms. Rosenblum said. “And I can tell you he tried everything to make the research complete. He was putting black history on the map in a way it hadn’t been, and this was such a terrible blow. We still feel like the film, except for one guy, is valid. If the Army records are so good, tell me: Who liberated Benjamin Bender at Buchenwald?”
Mr. Miles married the former Gloria Darlington in 1952, after having known her since they were classmates in elementary school. His other survivors include two daughters, Brenda Moore and Deborah Jones, and three grandchildren.
Last fall, the veteran Democratic Congressman Charles B. Rangel, whose district includes Harlem, entered a testimonial to Mr. Miles in the Congressional Record. Speaking on the House floor, Mr. Rangel gave a summary of Mr. Miles’s work, which includes films about black athletes, black astronauts, black cowboys, and the writer James Baldwin.
“Join me in a very special congressional salute to Harlem’s historian and black filmmaker, William ‘Bill’ Miles,” Mr. Rangel said, “a titan of a man who has documented the history and contributions of African-Americans and the black American experience with film, camera and a lens.”