Trailblazing Cinematographer Joseph M. Wilcots Has Died

January 7th, 2010

The first African American to join the International Cinematographers Guild, Joseph Wilcots was nominated for an Emmy for his work on Roots. The Archive of American Television interviewed Wilcots on December 5, 2007; his over three-hour Archive interview is now online.

Link to his L.A. Times obituary.

Interview description:
Joseph M. Wilcots was interviewed for three hours plus in Los Angeles, CA. Wilcots spoke about his early interest in photography as a teenager and his filmmaking experiences while serving in the Navy. He described his work, following the service, at the Westheimer Optical House, in particular the creative work being done for the special effects on the original Star Trek series. He related how he became the first African-American member of the camera operators union and identified the slow shift in adding other African-American members into the union over the years. He talked about his work in independent filmmaking and reminisced about some of the people he worked with including director Gordon Parks and cinematographer Robert Surtees. He spoke in great detail about the two projects for which he is most associated, the miniseries: Roots and Roots: The Next Generations in which he served as Directory of Photography. He talked about his approach to the Roots shows (“I wanted to make the audience smell the dirt”), meeting and working with Alex Haley (“Everything he wrote was shootable”), and working with actor Marlon Brando (he says he took 200 pounds off him using a fireplace as the key light). He noted the impact of Roots and what working on the miniseries meant to him. He acknowledged his work on the Alex Haley/Norman Lear series Palmerstown U.S.A. Lastly, he gave his impressions of three individuals for whom he worked for extensively: actor/director George Stanford Brown, Bill Cosby, and Michael Jackson. The interview was conducted by Gary Rutkowski on December 5, 2007.

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