Most Americans today, this reviewer included, have never heard of Dr. Ralph Bunche. This would have been difficult to comprehend back in the 1930s and ’40s, and almost incomprehensible in the 1950s and ’60s. How soon we forget our past, an unfortunate American trait dramatically underscored in director William Greaves fascinating documentary about this remarkable man, “Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey.”
A brief overview of Dr. Bunche’s renowned career is in order: He was the negotiator primarily responsible for the 1949 armistice between Isræl and its four Arab neighbors; an accomplishment for which he became the first person of color to win a Nobel Peace Prize. He is the man responsible for drafting key parts of the United Nations charter and the first Undersecretary General of the UN; a post created specifically for him; a tireless advocate for the de-colonization of Africa, as well as a prominent voice in the American Civil Rights movement; the first African-American to gain access to the Washington Establishment’s halls of power, and other distinctions too numerous to mention here.
One would think that with a career as distinguished as his, Dr. Bunche would be at least as famous as his contemporaries. That this scholar and statesman is not, is one of the inspirations behind Greaves’ video biography.
Based largely on the book of the same name by Bunche’s UN colleague, Sir Brian Urquhart, this film takes an in-depth look at a largely self-effacing man who remained a cipher to the public, despite his associations with presidents, kings and prime ministers. Comprised of interviews with colleagues, former students, and historians, together with readings from his personal papers and writings, Greaves’ film restores Dr. Bunche’s name to our consciousness, buffing his image in the process.
Narrated by Sidney Poitier, this quickly moving two-hour documentary, which airs February 2 on PBS, also delves into the controversies surrounding Bunche. Accusations that his go-slow approach towards African self-reliance and American integration made him an Uncle Tom get aired out here. So, too, does Senator McCarthy’s sham investigation of Bunche as a Communist sympathizer.
Besides the significance of his being one of the first African-Americans to earn such acclaim in this country and around the world, this is an important film for another reason: Dr. Bunche was at the center of virtually every major crisis in the mid-twentieth century. As such, this film serves as a useful primer course in world history during that troubled era.
“Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey” is a valuable film; a necessary, long-overdue profile of an American icon and one-man American time capsule.