William Miles was a self-taught documentary filmmaker who has produced several documentaries on the history of black Americans. Miles was born in Harlem, New York on August 19, 1931. He grew up in Harlem on 126th Street near the Apollo Theater. His mother ran a boarding house there that often provided accommodation for out-of-town entertainers performing at the Apollo. Miles first learned about film from the Apollo’s projectionist.
In 1948 at the age of 17 Miles joined the 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment, ultimately reaching the rank of sergeant. His film career began at Killiam Shows, a company that worked with archival films. There he began in the shipping department and moved up to editor.
William Miles produced his first film, Men of Bronze, in 1977. It chronicled the achievements of the 369th Infantry Regiment during World War I. The film was the culmination of 12 years of research beginning in the 1960s. Miles interviewed several surviving members of the historic all-black regiment popularly known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” including one of its white officers, Hamilton Fish III, who later became a prominent Republican congressman from New York. Although originally relegated to non-combat duties by the United States military, this regiment eventually fought with the French army at the battles of Champagne-Marne and Meuse-Argonne alongside Moroccan, Senegalese, and French soldiers.
Miles’s next project, the four-part series I Remember Harlem (1981), followed several stages in the history of Harlem spanning from the 1600s through the 1980s. The volumes are entitled: The Early Years: 1600-1930, The Depression Years: 1930-1940, Toward Freedom: 1940-1965, and Toward a New Day: 1965-1980.
Miles also produced and directed The Different Drummer: Blacks in the Military (1983), Black Champions (1986), Preaching the Word (1988), Black Stars in Orbit (1990), and The Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II (1992). He produced several films, such as Paul Robeson: Man of Conscience (1986) and James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket (1989). His 1990 documentary Black Stars in Orbit explores the history of black Americans in the United States space program. His 1992 documentary, The Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II, was co-produced with Nina Rosenblum. It chronicled the achievements of the primarily black 761st tank battalion during WWII as it liberated people from the Dachau and Buchenwald Nazi concentration camps.
His 1993 documentary, The Untold West: The Black West, explores the history of African Americans in the American West. It covers a variety of subjects, including York, a scout and mediator with the Lewis and Clark Expedition; escaped slaves and slave catchers in the West; pioneer Mary Fields (c. 1832-1914); the outlaw Crawford Goldsby (also known as “Cherokee Bill”); the Buffalo Soldiers; black cowboys; rodeo star Bill Pickett (1870-1932); and the early 20th century cowboy western actor Herb Jeffries.
Miles received several awards and distinctions, including an Emmy, an Academy Award nomination, a Guggenheim, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers. In 1986, he was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. Since 2006 the William Miles Collection has been housed in the Film & Media Archive at Washington University in St. Louis. William Miles died in Queens, New York on May 12, 2013. Miles was 82 and was survived by his wife, Gloria Miles.