The Jackie Robinson of Architecture

HOLLYWOOD’S ARCHITECT: THE PAUL R. WILLIAMS STORY

Undaunted, the pandemic can’t stop the Pan African Film Festival and in that immortal show biz tradition, the show must go on! Albeit virtually, as this year in order to stay cinematically safe, America’s largest and best yearly Black-themed filmfest since 1992 is moving online and starting later than usual, kicking off on the last day of Black History Month. 2021’s 29th annual Pan African Virtual Film + Arts Festival is taking place from Feb. 28 – March 14.

Co-directors Royal Kennedy Rodgers and Kathy McCampbell Vance’s Hollywood’s Architect: The Paul R. Williams Story is a nonfiction biopic about the African American talent who rose to become the so-called “Architect of the Stars” when Jim Crow was still the scourge of the land. Born 1894 in L.A., Paul Revere Williams’ real-life story, overcoming adversity, is remarkable, even if it is unremarkably told in this conventionally albeit professionally made documentary.

To tell this tale the filmmakers – who both have news backgrounds, but according to IMDB are newcomers to the documentary medium per se –round-up the usual cinema suspects for this documentary that aired on PBS in 2020 and is being reprised for PAFF 2021. There are the typical talking heads in (presumably) original interviews, including Williams’ relatives and celebrities such as Quincy Jones and Marlo Thomas; vintage footage; some relevant movie/TV clips such as of a Williams property in Tinseltown pictures like 1937’s Topper and of my namesake Edward R. Murrow interviewing Frank Sinatra on CBS’ 1950s Person to Person celeb chat show series; and original material of the private homes, public buildings, churches, hotels and more the prolific Williams drafted the blueprints for.

Despite being orphaned the doggedly determined Williams pursued an education and worked hard to achieve his professional goals and to cross the color line. Fortunately, he was in Los Angeles which was less repressive than the apartheid South, where his parents had hailed from (Memphis, Tennessee) before relocating to SoCal. Nevertheless, the Architect of the Stars still encountered strict housing codes that forbade him from living in the posh neighborhoods where he designed homes for celebrities and other well-heeled clientele – even though he could afford to do so. And when Williams designed the Crescent Wing and coffeeshop of the iconic Beverly Hills Hotel, he could not dine there with the white folks – even though its name emblazoned upon the world famous hotel’s wall and entrance/exit signs is cast in Williams’ distinctive handwriting.

William’s work was good enough to live in – they just didn’t want him living or eating next to them because of the color of his skin. Since some Caucasians didn’t want to sit beside him at meetings, Williams – an expert draftsman – developed a technique where he could sketch upside down so perspective clients could see his concepts while sitting across the table from the Black designer.

Sometimes the utter stupidity and casual cruelty of racism just makes you want to slap your forehead, froth at the mouth, gnash your teeth, rend your garments and howl at the moon. Don’t get me started!

Anyway, meanwhile, back at the film review:

In addition to Ol’ Blue Eyes, the Architect of the Stars’ other Hollywood clients included: Lon Chaney (the silver screen’s first Phantom of the Opera); swashbuckler Tyrone Power; Cary Grant (who, of course, starred in Topper, which as mentioned included the English Tudor Revival-style castle Williams had designed for a Pasadena racehorse owner); Lucille Ball; William Holden; and if, I understood correctly, Denzel Washington later lived in the Williams-designed English Tudor Revival style Leon Errol home in North Hollywood (Denzel’s wife, actress Pauletta Washington, appears in what’s presumably an original interview interview shot for this film).

Renowned structures that have the Williams stamp include LAX’s iconic space age-like Theme Building (he was part of the airport’s design team); L.A. Superior Court in Downtown; the 28th St. YMCA in South L.A. (now on the National Register of Historic Places); the First AME Church in the West Adams District; and many more.

Unlike other notable architects like, for instance, Frank Lloyd Wright, who had shall we say a flamboyant love life, Williams led a lowkey personal life as a devoted family man, according to Hollywood’s Architect. So the biopic has no motion picture peccadilloes of Williams romancing starlets or other racy gossip.

However, the documentary does suggest Williams – who “walked the tightrope between two worlds,” as the doc notes – was conservative in nature and a Republican. Like many Blacks who “made it” in whitey’s world, Williams had much to lose if he publicly spoke out against racism and social injustice. But the film does not imply that Williams was a “sellout,” Uncle Tom or race traitor.

The impression I got from Hollywood’s Architect is that Williams favored a Booker T. Washington “do-for-self” type of approach for the advancement of African Americans. Williams was the Jackie Robinson of architecture, a first in a number of ways such as membership in architectural associations and winning awards. But he went on to mentor other Blacks at the office he established. An example of Williams’ altruism is embodied in his work designing St. Jude Hospital, that charitable installation for afflicted children established by actor Danny Thomas. Williams donated his work for St. Jude – perhaps because it was located in Memphis, where his parents were from, and because they died when he was just a boy and he empathized with the plight of children. In any case, Danny Thomas eulogized Williams at his 1980 funeral.

I learned a lot from this very enjoyable, well-told 57-minute chronicle narrated by actor Courtney B. Vance that is about a truly admirable, gifted, dignified human being who defied the racism of his times by his deeds, if not by public words. Through Williams’ acts he proved the equality of African Americans. Hollywood’s Architect made me realize, among other things, that racism harms whites as well as Blacks and other “minorities.” The dominant majority culture misses out on much when systemic racism denies other ethnic groups the opportunity to blossom and develop their own talents and attain their full humanity. How many more Paul R. Williams would walk amongst us if it wasn’t for redlining, police brutality, gerrymandering and the myriad other ways nonwhites have been denied equal rights, as capitalism divides and conquers us along the color lines?

This Paul Revere persevered and Rodgers and Vance’s saga about the Jackie Robinson of architecture hits a home run.

For more info about Hollywood’s Architect: The Paul R. Williams Story see: Pan African Film Festival Hollywood’s Architect: The Paul R. Williams Story – PAFF 2021.

For info about PAFF see: Pan African Film FestivalPAFF 2021 – Black films from across the world.

Ed Rampell is a contributor to the new book on America’s former Poet Laureate “Conversations With W.S. Merwin” and co-author of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book“.

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