Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey

A remarkable career in activism is methodically traced in "Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey," vet documentarian William Greaves' portrait of the late U.S. statesman/scholar. Important but underappreciated figure's saga is engrossing, though rather dry treatment here will limit pic's own "odyssey" to repeat PBS airings.

A remarkable career in diplomacy and activism is methodically traced in “Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey,” vet documentarian William Greaves’ admiring portrait of the late U.S. statesman/scholar. Important but underappreciated figure’s saga is undeniably engrossing, though rather dry treatment here will limit pic’s own “odyssey” to repeat PBS airings and educational play.

Born to a working-class Detroit family at the last century’s start, Bunche’s prodigious intellect and refusal to accept racial glass ceilings were encouraged from childhood. The race riots of 1919 heightened his social consciousness; after graduating as UCLA’s 1927 valedictorian and accepting a political science professorship at all-black Howard U. in Washington, D.C., he co-founded the short-lived National Negro Congress, which sought civil rights-promoting alliances with other liberal orgs.

His tract “A World View of Race,” written as a caution against 1930s fascist movements, offered prescient analysis of racial politics and repression throughout history. This role as visionary theorist, however, would soon be overshadowed by his unprecedented (if somewhat reluctant) rise as a diplomat. First drafted by FDR to abet the State Dept. in the dismantling of old international colonialist structures after WWII, Bunche would go on to play a key role in drafting U.N. guidelines, as well as mediating peace treaties in Palestine and (less successfully) the tribal discord-plagued Congo.

These triumphs — all the more striking given same era’s stagnancy in racial-equity progress at home — earned Bunche a 1949 Nobel Prize. Such was his fame that the next year he presented the best picture Oscar to “All About Eve” producer Darryl F. Zanuck.

Unfortunately, this career pinnacle was followed by his investigation by the McCarthy gang, who pointed to his ’30s activities as proof that he was “a concealed Communist.” (No matter that Bunche exited the Negro Congress precisely because he disapproved of its growing “Red” allegiances.)

While active in the ’60s civil rights movement, an aging Bunche found himself little valued by younger generations. To them, he seemed the “ultimate model Negro,” a bureaucrat entrenched in the Establishment “system” they rejected. His crafty, subtle advocacy of Third World self-government — often finessed past resistant First World powers — was ignored or dismissed by more militant New Left leadership.

Self-effacing, most at home in button-down academia, Bunche was disinclined to rewrite his profile for changing auds. Yet even given this reserved personality, “An American Odyssey” provides little sense of the man behind the resume.

The grief his long working absences caused a loyal wife are noted but little commented upon; likewise, his surviving children are heard from too briefly. Lengthy docu surely could have found room for more personal insight; subject’s twilight years are barely touched on, and cause of his 1971 death goes unmentioned.

Package is solidly pro if unimaginative, hewing very much to standard pubcaster style. There’s an occasional heavy-handedness to recitations of Bunche letters, papers, etc., as well as chosen musical cues (culled from works by late African-American composer William Grant Still).

Sidney Poitier’s narration is also notably stiff at times.

Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey

  • Production: A South Carolina Educational Television and Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture presentation of a William Greaves Prods. production. Produced by William Greaves. Co-producer, Louise Archambault. Directed by William Greaves. Screenplay, Greaves, with Leslie E. Lee, based on the book by Brian Urquhart.
  • Crew: Camera (B&W/color, video), Jerry Pantzer, Joe Mangine; supervising editor, Greaves; additional editing, Stephen J. Mack, Christopher Osborn, Paul Srp, Linda Hattendorf, Stephen Perrotta, Michael Piehl; music, William Grant Still; additional music, Kermit Moore; sound, Charles Blackwell, John Oh; chief researcher, Louise Archambault. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 26, 2001. Running time: 117 MIN.
  • With: Narrator - Sidney Poitier