Essex County College’s Dr. William J. Tooma spends much of his day teaching English courses and meeting with students in his Division of Humanities & Bilingual Studies office on the Newark campus. He also enjoys documentary films, but not just watching them; he wants to help bring history alive.
Dr. Tooma, who produces his scholarly work under the name “Billy Tooma,” currently has to his credit three feature-length documentaries which he has written and directed, and two more on the way: George Washington: The Farewell Address (2018) and Washington Irving: An American Original (2020). The latter project is an adaptation of New York Times bestselling author, Brian Jay Jones’ 2009 biography.
In September, he screened the documentary Poetry of Witness (2015) at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library in conjunction with this year’s Windham-Campbell Prizes Festival. This film, which was also screened at Essex in 2016, sheds light upon those who have chosen poetry to preserve the memories of war, torture, exile, and repression. It is based off of the decades-long work of Carolyn Forché, who is also featured in the film, alongside others like two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist in poetry, Bruce Weigl.
On Sunday, October 22, Dr. Tooma will screen portions of his newest documentary, The Black Eagle of Harlem, with a talk to follow, at Drew University as a guest lecturer of the institution’s Arts & Letters Salon series. The film is a study on the life and times of Hubert Julian, one of the first persons of color to ever fly in an airplane. Essex’s own Dr. Akil Khalfani, Director of the Africana Institute, appears in the documentary, commentating on the sociological impact Julian had on history. For more information on this event, please visit www.drew.edu/alsalon.
How did Dr. Tooma end up becoming a filmmaker? In 2006 he was talking to local filmmaker Karl Petry who introduced him to Philip Chamberlin, the adopted son of early aviator Clarence Chamberlin. That conversation piqued an interest in Dr. Tooma. Three years later he was watching a documentary on television and was left unimpressed. “It’s like I thought I could do something just as bad,” he recalled with a laugh. Then he got serious and, remembering his meeting with Philip Chamberlin, rolled up his sleeves and began work on his first documentary: Clarence Chamberlin: Fly First & Fight Afterward (2011). That film is a historical account of Chamberlin, the second man to pilot a non-stop, fixed-wing aircraft from the United States to the European mainland, while carrying the first transatlantic passenger. The documentary was a nominated finalist for the 2011 Combs-Gates Award, presented by the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
Dr. Tooma noted that he creates his films in order to help people learn, inside and outside of the classroom. “I made them, in part, to teach others about the importance of history and of the humanities in general. Not everything makes it into a history book, so it is so vital to seek out the stories of the past in order to see how those who came before us contributed to the world in which we live in today.”
For his two new projects, Dr. Tooma said he will utilize original artwork, something he began in Poetry of Witness and continued to develop with The Black Eagle of Harlem, in order to tell the stories of the first president and of America’s first true blue literary celebrity. “You are not always going to find archival materials to help tell the story from a visual standpoint,” he said. “So what I have my artist, Essex alumnus Najee R. Smith, do is illustrate moments in my subjects’ lives in order to help audiences connect with the material. I am trying to create visual literature.”
Eventually, Dr. Tooma said he would like to write a biography for book publication. “But it’s films right now. There are a lot of other subjects I want to see visualized on screen.”
On top of his teaching and filmmaking, he also finds time to serve as Deputy Executive Director of the Community College Humanities Association, as a trustee on the New Jersey College English Association’s board, and as an active member of the Biographers International Organization.
His three documentaries can be viewed, in full, via YouTube and his website www.iconindependentfilms.com. “I made them available for free because I want the subjects be a part of the greater conversation of history.”