Movies - Documentaries postsFriday October 30, 2015
Q&A with Aviva Kempner on ‘Rosenwald,’ about the Jewish businessman who built more than 5,000 schools for African-Americans in the South
Julius Rosenwald was born in 1862, the son of an immigrant peddler, and rose to become part owner and president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, which he helped build into the largest retailer in the U.S. He was also a philanthropist. Along with various good works in Chicago, where he lived, he helped build more than 5,000 two-room schoolhouses in the South for African-Americans, which became known as “Rosenwald schools.” From 1917 to 1948, the Rosenwald Fund also made grants directly to African-American artists and researchers, including Langston Hughes, Jacob Lawrence, James Weldon Johnson, Augusta Savage, John Hope Franklin, Charles Drew, Gordon Parks, Jr., and James Baldwin. Rosenwald died in 1932.
Documentarian Aviva Kempner (“The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg”) brings Rosenwald’s story to life in “Rosenwald,” which is playing this week at Sundance Cinemas in Seattle, with a special screening tonight, Friday, October 30, with Rosenwald’s grandson and biographer, Peter Ascoli, in attendance. There will be a Q&A with Mr. Ascoli after the 6:45 screening.
I spoke with Ms. Kempner on Monday.
After viewing your documentary, and hearing Julius Rosenwald’s story, I was amazed—and a little chagrined—that I’d never heard of him. How did you come across him?
I was lucky enough, 12 years ago, to attend a lecture by Julian Bond about blacks and Jews. I thought it was going to be about the Civil Rights era, but Julian surprised me by talking so eloquently about Julius Rosenwald and the schools, and how his own father and his uncle had gotten money from the Rosenwald fund. So I decided that had to be my next film.
It fit in with my M.O. about doing films about under-known Jewish heroes. I suspect he is the most under-known. It also fit ... In all my films, my protagonist is fighting an ism: Hank Greenberg was fighting anti-Semitism and Fascism, Molly Goldberg was fighting sexism and McCarthyism, and with this film, obviously, Rosenwald was fighting racism.
Early in the doc, one of your talking heads, Lester Mae Hill, who attended a Rosenwald school, asks, “What was his interest in doing this for the African-American community?”
Isn’t Lester wonderful? She was just so amazed, coming from the Jim Crow South, why a white man would want to do it.
I know your documentary is an extended answer to that question, but what’s the short answer?
I think we answered it several ways. Reading Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery, [Rosenwald] realized what a profound problem there was in the South in terms of literally keeping African-Americans in the field and not affording them a good and equal education. Second, his Rabbi had taught him the tenets of Tikkun olam: “Repairing the world.” And I think growing up under the corner shadow of Abraham Lincoln’s home, he was inspired. He really operated on the philosophy, “Give while you live.”
So why do you think Rosenwald’s story, which is an amazing American story, is not better known?
I think it’s a combination of things. It was over 100 years ago; he was such a modest man; and it was in the South and the Midwest. So the people who went to the schools remember it, and people in Chicago certainly knew who he was. But I can’t tell you how many people ... Just the other day, someone in my audience said, “I grew up in Chicago: How did I not know this story?”
Exactly. In some ways he’s the bridge between Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education.
Well, it’s interesting because some of this [archive] footage was shot by Charles Hamilton Houston. He was the mentor to Thurgood Marshall.
Did Rosenwald ever get criticized for helping educate black people?
Eugene Talmadge, the governor of Georgia, really called him out on it. That’ll probably be in the DVD. And I think burning down the schools is criticizing, don’t you?
When you began your research, what did you discover that surprised you most?
Going in, I thought it was just the schools. Then I heard about the fund. Even more surprising is the fact that so many of the young people who work for me, black and white, don’t know who Marian Anderson is, and how important her story is. I’ve had an older white woman at one of my screenings come up to me and say, “I learned more about African-American history watching this film than I ever learned in all the years at school, including college.”
Rosenwald also did a lot with Jewish charities in Chicago. Why not include more about that in the documentary?
Well, what can you do? I think that’s more what you would expect him to do, and I really wanted the film to be how he rose beyond what you would expect: How a successful Jewish businessman in a major, very northern city [helped African-Americans in the South]. And I had the people that were really affected by it.
I could do a whole other film of what isn’t in the film. He was also on the crime commission—this was the time of Al Capone. There was a horrible [race] riot in 1919 and he was on the commission to study that. He and the mayor of Chicago prevented Birth of a Nation from being shown in Chicago for a while.
In your documentaries, you do something I haven’t seen many other filmmakers do: You use feature-film footage to illustrate some part of the story that doesn’t have footage—as when Rosenwald’s father is peddling in Virginia in the 1850s and you show a clip of Gene Wilder in “The Frisco Kid.”
I think these scriptwriters oftentimes get it really right. It’s proven when [historian] Hasia Diner says, you know, “The peddler would sell to the immigrant, the African American, the Indian,” and I remembered an episode of “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” and it was exactly in that order.
You also have Clint Eastwood in an old episode of “Rawhide” being taught the word “schlamazel” by a Jewish peddler. Nice find. Where did you get that?
The Paley Center for TV and Film. You just spend the time researching. Almost every cowboy series had a peddler. Probably because there were a lot of Jewish screenwriters.
There’s a great lesson for rich people today, too, particularly those running for office. [In the documentary Rosenwald says the following: “Don’t be fooled by believing that because a man is rich he is necessarily smart. There is ample proof to the contrary. Most large fortunes are made by men of mediocre ability, who fumbled into a lucky opportunity and couldn’t help but get rich.”]
Oh, I’d say it’s the best [antidote] to Trump’s line.
So which under-known Jewish hero is next?
Whoever I really can fall in love with. And I can get the money up front.
But who would be ideal?
I like the idea of [MLB catcher and OSS spy] Moe Berg. Go back to a little baseball.
The Eyes of Robert Durst
Too much has already been written about Andrew Jarecki’s “The Jinx,” the HBO documentary about Robert Durst, the scion of a New York real estate empire suspected of killing his first wife in New York after she went missing in January 1982; suspected of killing his friend and confidante in LA in December 2004; and charged with killing and dismemembering his neighbor in Galveston, TX in October 2001—for which Texas super lawyer Dick DeGuerin got him off (more or less) on a charge of (believe it or not) self-defense. Jarecki’s doc has led to Durst being arrested again, since, at the end, muttering to himself without knowing his microphone is still on, he seems to confess to the crimes. “Killed them all, of course,” he says, while lambasting himself for a poor performance before Jarecki’s cameras.
Among the many articles, I’m sure, are pieces on the ethics of dramatizations in documentaries, the ethics of Jarecki and company confronting Durst with incriminating handwriting evidence rather than going to the police, and the whole “did he/didn’t he” puzzle of it all. (Although I’m sure not many folks are falling on the “didn’t he” side by the end.)
What no one’s brought up? How much Durst’s eyes, with their creepy, overlarge pupils, look like the eyes of the villainnesses in the 1973 exploitation flick, “Invasion of the Bee Girls.” That’s why I’m here, I guess. You’re welcome.
B. Durst (top); Bee Girl (bottom).
Trailer: The Salinger Documentary
This seems interesting but so far none of it is exactly news. I knew Salinger quit publishing in 1965, I knew he'd been in World War II and suffered a nervous breakdown, I knew The Catcher in the Rye had a huge affect on generations of kids, including me. I also have my own theories about why Salinger stopped publishing. But I'll still be there opening weekend. September.
What's Up with the IMDb Rating of the WikiLeaks Documentary 'We Steal Secrets'?
I never rate movies on Netflix or IMDb or anywhere else. I think it's pointless—it's just a number—but more importantly I don't want to give away that shit for free. Instead I write about it in detail and give it away for free here. Which has the advantage of being here.
But last week on IMDb I rated Alex Gibney’s latest documentary, “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.” Why? This is why. It’s a screenshot of the doc’s IMDb page from last week. What’s wrong with this picture?
The doc has a 4.3 rating. How bad is 4.3 in the IMDb universe? “Ghost Rider 2: Spirit of Vengeance” has a 4.4 rating.
Is “We Steal Secrets” that bad? Not nearly. In my movie-reviewing days at The Seattle Times, I would’ve given it four out of four stars. I keep recommending to people. I recommend it to you now. Here's my review.
So why the low rating? I assume WikiLeaks' supporters are voting early and often against the doc without having seen it. The doc has the temerity to take a nuanced approach to Julian Assange. It suggests that what began with a demand for openness has become a closed society. It tells a tragic tale. The IMDb rating may be part of that tragic tale. What better way to suppress information than to imply it's no good?
A few days ago, out of the blue, I received this odd tweet:
I checked out the links above but couldn't get past the defensiveness. One of the first complaints: “The premiere of 'We Steal Secrets' is opportunistically timed” — I.e., near the Bradley Manning trial. Right. Because distribution companies usually try to open their films unopportunistically. They never take advantage of, say, the holidays or summer vacation.
This line is worse: “The film portrays Manning’s alleged acts as failure of character rather than a triumph of conscience.” Not my read at all. If the doc has sympathy for any of its three main players—Manning, Assange, and Adrian Lamo—it's for Manning. From my review last week:
But it wasn’t until Pvt. Bradley Manning, a nice, fucked-up kid from Oklahoma, who was stationed in Iraq and wondered what to do about the confidential—and to him, immoral—information he had access to, that we all knew Assange’s name.
If WikiLeaks has serious complaints about Alex Gibney's doc, then it needs to focus on them. But focus has never been WikiLeaks' strong suit. They've always been about TMI.
This was the IMDb page of “We Steal Secrets” this morning:
Don't believe the negative hype.
The Original Gangster Squad
This weekend, as “Gangster Squad” was opening to poor reviews and poorer box office, I watched a documentary called “Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film.” I'd never heard of it but there it was on Netflix. For, like, free. Narrated by Alec Baldwin. You worry you're going to wind up with some AMC Biography crap but this thing was decent.
It is what it says it is. Its focus is on the 1930s Warner Bros. gangsters: Robinson and Cagney in the 1930s, then Bogart's work from the 1940s. It includes Martin Scorsese as talking head and some of his films. But it never mentions “The Godfather,” at least not so as I remembered, and pretty much ignores the 1950s on. It ends more or less with Cody Jarett. Top of the world, ma.
But the best part of the doc for me was the first 20 minutes when we got clips from silent gangster movies. Not just “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” (1913), which Scorsese talked up in “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American movies,” but a 1906 silent film called “The Black Hand.” Any “Godfather” fan immediately perks up. “The Black Hand” at the time of Vito Corleone's battle with the Black Hand? Sign me up.
Turns out it's one of about a half-dozen silents with “black hand” in the title. We don't get the others. But we do get these:
Some of “Regeneration” was apparently filmed in Five Points, only 50 years removed from when Martin Scorses would set it in “Gangs of New York.” He watched it as preparation.
There's also a great, short appreciation for Lon Chaney, the man of a thousand faces, who projects powerful ones here. It makes me want to see more of his work.
Why did gangster movies prosper with talkies? Some say it was the sounds, such as machine guns, but you could get those in war movies, too. Others mention the patois, the accents, from the various neighborhoods in New York. Wise guy, see? There's Prohibition, during which most of us became criminals and criminals became powerful, and the Great Depression, when many Americans realized what a scam it all was, and a man making his rise by any means necessary, and in the face of the real criminals, the Wall Street types, was a comforting 90-minute wish-fulfillment fantasy for many Americans.
Plus the movie stars who showed up: Cagney, Bogart, Edward G. Robinson:
By the way, and appropos of nothing, doesn't this actor in “Musketeers of Pig Alley” remind you of Mark Strong?
History written with lightning has simply become history. The backgrounds alone in these early silents, filmed in various locations in New York in the 1910s, make them worth watching.