Liberating History William Miles documents African-American stories so others won't forget

November 08, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

New York -- William Miles has this nightmare, sometimes. He's bogged down in a film documentary he's producing, invariably because of money problems. The anxiety builds: He's been working seven days a week, 15 to 16 hours a day. But will the film ever get made?

"In this nightmare," Mr. Miles says in his cramped office at WNET-TV, "I'm a soldier in the trenches in World War I. I'm out of ammunition. And I look up and see an enemy soldier coming in over the top and down to my trench. He chases me to the end of the trench with his bayonet. And I can't get out."

B6 That's one manifestation of the nervous, uncertain

life of an independent filmmaker -- particularly one who happens to be black and concentrates on black-related subjects. "I have no problems finding the subjects I want to do," says Mr. Miles, 61. "But money is always a problem for me."

But here's the flip side: He has the freedom to do a film on a subject that he wants to do. One that really matters to him -- on blacks in the military, such as "Men of Bronze," his first film, which came out in 1977 after 12 uncertain years of work. Or the award-winning retrospective "I Remember Harlem," about his old neighborhood.

Or, most recently, "The Liberators," a compelling 90-minute look at a black tank battalion that helped liberate Nazi concentration camps during World War II. After a gala benefit showing Tuesday night in New York's Lincoln Center, "The Liberators," which Mr. Miles co-produced and co-directed with Nina Rosenblum, will be shown on MPT (channels 22 and 67) Wednesday night at 9, with actors Denzel Washington and Lou Gossett Jr. narrating.

These and other documentaries haven't made him much money, but they've gotten Bill Miles a host of awards and landed him in the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. They've also done something else for Mr. Miles, who is easygoing, genuinely humble and quick to laugh, but nonetheless has steel in his soul.

"My first film took me 12 years to make, so that was sort of like my basic training," he says genially when asked about the uncertain life of an independent filmmaker. "So I just say, 'It will happen.' I'd tell Nina, 'We're on this train. Those who want to get on, get on. If they don't, don't get in our way because we're gonna come through.' "

But despite his good humor, there is a part of Bill Miles that is quite serious. "I make my films because I don't ever want anyone to say that I, or black people in general, haven't been here," he says simply, without rancor. "We've been wiped out or ignored in history all too long. And that's the worst thing you can do to someone."

That's a feeling that Staff Sgt. Leonard "Smitty" Smith shared with his buddies in the all-black 761st Tank Battalion for many years. Nicknamed "the Black Panthers," they had been at the vanguard of Patton's Third Army, fighting for 183 straight days in 1944-'45 and earning as a group more than 300 Purple Hearts. They fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Later, they helped liberate concentration camps in Germany. But they were virtually ignored in history books and were not even mentioned in the film "Patton."

The showing of "The Liberators," as well as the recent publication of a companion book, should change all that. "I'm just as happy as you can be," says Mr. Smith, now 68 and living in

Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. "It's about time we got recognized. It's amazing the number of people who said to us, 'You're joking. We didn't know you existed.' "

Fighting two fronts

"The Liberators" deals with several powerful themes. There's the irony of black soldiers who are asked to defend their country but encounter overt, often violent discrimination while training at bases in the South. (Thus, the subtitle for the book and film: "Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II.")

Once overseas, many black soldiers were treated without prejudice by the European people. This memory was carried back to the States by those GIs and is considered by some historians a significant development in the civil rights movement.

Perhaps an even more moving theme in "The Liberators" is that of these black American soldiers helping to take concentration camps run by the Nazis. As used to ill treatment as the black "liberators" were, many were overwhelmed by the desolation and human destruction that awaited them in Dachau, Buchenwald and other camps.

Buchenwald revisited

In one especially emotional part of "The Liberators," Mr. Smith and another soldier from the 761st, E.G. McConnell, go to Buchenwald with Ben Bender, a survivor of the Holocaust. It was Mr. Bender's 1985 letter to the New York Times praising black soldiers who had helped liberate Buchenwald that made Mr. Miles determined to make this film. Mr. Bender had sworn never to return to the place in which so many people, including a brother, had been killed. But in 1991, he came back to revisit Buchenwald for the film.

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