Obituary: William Miles / Maker of films on little-known black history

April 18, 1931 - May 12, 2013

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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 grew up, died on May 12 in New York City. He was 82.

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 in the borough of Manhattan, 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' 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.

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 attended City College of New York for a while.

As a young man, he worked as a shipping clerk for a distributor of educational films and then at Killian Shows, a company that restored silent films; there, Mr. Miles learned mechanical skills such as repairing film and clipping segments for use in commercials. During this time he met Richard Adams, who also worked at Killian, and who became a cameraman and film editor for several of Mr. Miles' films, including "Men of Bronze."

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