Pioneering black filmmaker made films on MLK, Panthers

Allen Willis, a pioneering African-American filmmaker who documented significant periods in San Francisco Bay area history, died Feb. 23 in Oakland. He was 94.

According to the East Bay Media Center, which houses his archives, Willis became the first African American in California broadcast journalism when he took a job at San Francisco’s KQED television in 1963. Before that, he studied under photographer Ansel Adams.

On his first pics he collaborated with Melvin Van Peebles, the father of blaxploitation films. And in 1955, with San Francisco poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, he produced, directed, filmed and edited the 16mm film “Have You Sold Your Dozen Roses?”

In his 25 years at KQED, Willis made films chronicling major events and cultural movements, including “The Other America,” about Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 “white backlash” speech at Stanford U.; 1970 docu “Stagger Lee,” an interview with incarcerated Black Panther leader Bobby Seale; and a film exploring the psychedelic drug experience.

After retiring in 1986, Willis wrote a column for a Marxist-Humanist publication until 2008.

He is survived by a sister.

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