Gentleman, Activist and Scholar: W.E.B. Du Bois - A Biography in Four Voices

By Thompson, Andrew O. | American Cinematographer, January 1997 | Go to article overview

Gentleman, Activist and Scholar: W.E.B. Du Bois - A Biography in Four Voices


Thompson, Andrew O., American Cinematographer


Award-winning independent filmmaker Louis Massiah (Eyes on the Prize II, The Bombing on usage Avenue) first considered chronicling the life of African-American renaissance man Dr. William Edward Burghart Du Bois (1868-1963) in the late Eighties, while he was a producer at Philadelphia public television station WHYY. Initially, the film was designed solely to study Du Bois' sociological text The Philadelphia Negro. But since the activist's existence comprised eras of black American history unexplored on a mass-media level, Massiah felt obliged to fashion an overarching narrative. Some six years in the making, W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography in Four Voices recently screened at the 1996 Toronto Film Festival's Planet Africa series, and is slated for a nationwide PBS broadcast on the evening of February 7.

Offers Massiah, "I hadn't intended to make such a sweeping history, but one of my [scholarly] advisors felt that because people know so little about the period, they would have no sense of context. In terms of the popular imagination, there are vague notions of the time of African enslavement. But with the huge span between the end of enslavement and the beginning of the civil rights movement, there really isn't much sense of how African-Americans fit into U.S. history. Du Bois allows us a way to look at that."

In 1990, financed with start-up grants from the National Black Programming Consortium and the Paul Robeson Fund, Massiah began acquiring archival stills, footage and documents. The director first scoured several hundred American archives; the painstaking process entailed sending out letters of inquiry and, in return, receiving Xerox copies of documents which would then be categorized depending upon their relevance.

Du Bois' ties to Communism made him a target of McCarthyism in America, but overseas, particularly in Europe, his ideas were greeted with enthusiasm. Due to Du Bois' international stature, Massiah found that much of the best archival film originated from the United Kingdom, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Russia and China, as well as such parts of the black diaspora as Ghana and Jamaica. But the scarcity of archival footage impacted the director's vision. Remarks Massiah, "It was good in the sense that the history we were telling wasn't being driven by images. Sometimes archival images become the crux of historical films, even when they are not central to the story."

Massiah assigned four African-American writers to offer a more personal approach in depicting the activist's life. Playwright Wesley Brown (Boogie Woogie and Booker T.) devised "Part One: Black Folk and the New Century (1895-1915)," which recounts Du Bois' early years; his initial texts, The Philadelphia Negro and The Souls of Black Folk; his opposition to Booker T. Washington's support for segregation; and his co-founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Journalist/novelist Thulani Davis (7959, Maker of Saints) authored "Section Two: The Crisis and the New Negro (1919-1929)," which follows Du Bois' creation of the NAACP magazine The Crisis, and his co-founding of the Pan-African Movement. The late novelist Toni Cade Bambara ( The Salt Eaters, Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions) wrote "Part Three: A Second Reconstruction (1934-1948)," a survey of Du Bois' tenure at Atlanta University, his embrace of Marxism, and identity issues inherent to his groundbreaking tome Black Reconstruction. Finally, poet/playwright Amiri Baraka (Dutchman, Transbluesency) composed "Part Four: Color, Democracy, Colonies and Peace (1949-1963)," an account of Du Bois' turmoil during the Red Scare era and his eventual emigration to Ghana, where he toiled on the Encyclopedia Africana until his death.

Says Massiah, "Among scholars, activists and writers, everyone has their own take on Du Bois, so [using] these four writers seemed like a way of reflecting that diversity, very much wanted to have narrators who were engaged in the subject. …

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