Michael Henry Wilson dies at 67; documentarian filmed Scorsese, Mandela

Michael Henry Wilson in 2013.
Michael Henry Wilson in 2013.
(Carole J. Wilson)

Documentary filmmaker and film historian Michael Henry Wilson, whose films and books focused on directors such as Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood, died June 26 at home in Westlake Village. He was 67.

The cause was lung cancer, said his wife, Carole Wilson, who produced several of his films.

One of Michael Wilson’s best known films was the 1995 “A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies,” which he co-directed with Scorsese. In a review, Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan said the film “takes its place as one of the very few essential documentaries on the American film experience.”

Although some reviewers criticized Wilson for being so close to his subjects that he examined their work with a noncritical eye, it was the trust he built over long periods — and his unabashed love of cinema — that brought forth serious self-examinations by the filmmakers. The Independent newspaper in London said in 2011 that his book on Clint Eastwood, “Eastwood on Eastwood,” “is a rare and intimate recount of the actor and director’s prolific career.”


It went on to praise the book for “providing fascinating insights into the thinking behind each of his films.”

Wilson was born Oct. 2, 1946, in Paris. He wrote regularly about film for the magazine Positif. His thesis for his doctorate degree from the Universite Paris-Sorbonne was German Expressionist film. He came to Los Angeles in the early 1980s.

In addition to his documentaries, he wrote the screenplay for the 2002 fictional film “Intimate Affairs,” directed by Alan Rudolph. It received a limited release.

Wilson’s last completed documentary was a departure in that it was not about movies. It resulted from an audience he had with the Dalai Lama in New York after finishing the 1998 documentary “In Search of Kundun With Martin Scorsese,” about the making of the feature film “Kundun.”

The Dalai Lama asked Wilson what his next project would be. “I said, ‘It would be something about the spirit of reconciliation, something that you embody in this world today,’” Wilson said in a 2011 interview with the Palm Springs Desert Sun.

The Dalai Lama replied: “That sounds very good. I think the first person you should meet is Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. You should go to South Africa.’”

Wilson did, and the result was the 2010 documentary “Reconciliation: Mandela’s Miracle.” It includes interviews with not only Mandela and Tutu, but also with former supporters of the oppressive apartheid policy, including F.W. de Klerk, a past president of South Africa.

Wilson wrote that the documentary “is driven by the notion that even the most terrible tyranny can be overcome through reconciliation, as both the oppressed and the oppressors need to be liberated from the vise grip of prejudice and injustice.”


At the time of his death, Wilson was working on another documentary with a political bent, “Myanmar Year Zero,” which Carole Wilson said she will finish. He was also working with Scorsese on a film about British cinema.

In addition to his wife, Wilson is survived by his daughter, Lara; son Thomas; stepson Kripa Jones; and sister Anne Bretel.

Twitter: @davidcolker