Honor the Benefactor: Aviva Kempner’s Rosenwald
By Elias Savada.
Aviva Kempner has struck again. A Jewish liberal landmark in Washington for many decades, she has forged a multi-faceted career that includes making documentaries that focus on people and events Jewish. The Washington Jewish Film Festival was started by Kempner in 1990 (she’s still on its advisory board). She runs The Ciesla Foundation, a non-profit which promotes education (“Films That Make a Difference”) relating to the Holocaust (her mother was a survivor), and she makes her occasional films, all of which earn pretty good reviews. Yes, I’ve known her for many years, been to her house, enjoyed discussions with some of her filmmaker friends, sat next to her at screenings (she can be a tad chatty), and enjoyed her well researched films.
After producing Partisans of Vilna 20 years ago, she hit a grand slam with The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, her 1998 feature directorial debut (she also produces and writes her films), a Peabody Award-winning sports documentary about one of baseball’s most celebrated Jewish players. (A 2-DVD set, available at hankgreenbergfilm.org was released in 2013 with a slew of extra material.) From the baseball diamond she segued to 2009’s Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, a gem of a biography about Gertrude Berg, a radio and television actress, writer, and pioneer.
And now comes Rosenwald, about Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. Continuing her string of cinematic single-person-centric assessments, but now focusing on a more obscure character for many of us, Kempner’s tone remains light, brisk, entertaining, instructive, and thoughtful. This should also be her first film to cross over from her mostly white, Jewish audience. While Rosenwald was a successful Jewish businessman who joined Sears, Roebuck & Company just after the 1893 economic panic, his generosity (the firm grew tremendously under his leadership) extended to the African-American community in the South, where, starting in 1913, he began providing funds that eventually allowed the construction of over 5,300 schools that bore his name. Rosenwald Schools (and other endeavors funded by the industrialist) touched many black individuals in their early road to a secure, productive, and occasionally famous life.
At the beginning of the 20th century he befriended Paul J. Sachs, a senior partner at Goldman Sachs. On more than one occasion, their conversations would veer toward the plight of this country’s African-American population. These discussions led to introductions to Rosenwald of such education luminaries as William H. Baldwin and Booker T. Washington. That evolved into a lifelong commitment to the Tuskegee Institute, the historically black university established by Washington in 1881.
Kempner builds the opening of the film on the schools, with fine array of talking heads like the late civil rights activist Julian Bond or poet Rita Dove speaking highly of the Chicago businessman’s efforts. Others will provide their stories later in the film, ultimately allowing for the momentous connections where people learn they or their ancestors share a common intersection — having attended a Rosenwald School.
But Kempner diverts early to an extended chapter featuring a lot of J.R.’s descendants, authors (kudos especially to Stephanie Deutsch), and historians telling us about the family genealogy and businesses (a more enlightened version of Who Do You Think You Are?). This parade includes Rosenwald’s biographer and grandson Peter Ascoli, who traces the family’s arrival in the New World from Germany, with Julius’s father landing in Baltimore in 1851 with $20 in his pocket. It’s illuminating, especially the historic photos, Sears advertisements, personal letters, etc. Here’s where the director uses Hollywood to illustrate her point, and this repurposing doesn’t fully work. Isn’t that Gene Wilder coming off a ship from The Frisco Kid? And later there’s Henry Fonda as Abe Lincoln (Rosenwald and the president were both born in Springfield, Illinois) from Young Mr. Lincoln. Or, on the lighter side, Clint Eastwood trying to say the word schlimazel from an old Rawhide episode. Obviously Kempner wants the viewer to connect on an emotional and audio-visual level (i.e., have someone mention a man on a horse and show a Hollywood version of that thought under the commentary), but I’m wondering if there might have been some less diverting footage available, without the noticeable star talent. Thankfully, it’s kept to a minimum. Otherwise the interesting graphics and archival footage make Rosenwald a real blast from the past.
For a man who became rich beyond his wildest dreams and was greatly stimulated by Chicago Rabbi Emil Hirsch, an influential exponent for social justice, Rosenwald put his wealth to work easing the world’s underprivileged and unfortunates. Aside from his interest in helping educate Southern blacks, he donated to the Y.M.C.A. (white and colored), numerous Hebrew/Jewish charities, flood and earthquake sufferers, and more. He fully took to heart the Jewish obligation of Tzedakah, which loosely translates as charity, but which was interpreted by Rosenwald as performing acts of justice and righteousness — of giving the poor their due. He donated matching grants of $25,000 to build YMCAs for African-Americans across the country, pushing both races to commit to this cause. Kempner captures some great stories, including one from the great-great-granddaughter of Madame C.J. Walker (of Beauty Culture fame), about her ancestor donating $1,000 to the Indianapolis cause.
As the film rounds the 30-minute mark and Booker T. Washington gets his due, the story moves to Tuskegee and then the schools and their erection. Built by the people for the people. The pride of each of their communities. And the stories get increasingly personal and insightful. Not that hard to believe, considering that, at one point, one out of every three black children in the South were attending them.
The film also touches on the hometown generosity of the eponymous Illinois benefactor, tracing the construction in 1929 of the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments, built on Chicago’s south side to house its swanky, intellectual black middle class citizens. More great recollections about the more famous of its residents, coupled with fascinating home movies and photos.
Heck, there’s more, but enough from me already.
On a technical level, the film’s editing (by Marian Sear Hunter) holds together exceedingly well, considering all the incredible materials she’s squeezing into a 96-minute frame, and Zane Mark’s score helps with the flow.
Rosenwald is chockfull of heartwarming anecdotes and delightful moments. Sure, some of the footage (Maya Angelou) was “borrowed” from an earlier piece, but it still remains effective in its new context. The film also works as an economic primer and as a joyous reunion of those affected by the Rosenwald’s munificence.
One last thing, and you can compare this as you wish to the state of the world (and particularly to one presidential candidate) today. JR speaks to a newsreel camera at one point in the film. For a man who never finished high school or attended college, he offers “Don’t be fooled by believing because a man is rich that he is necessarily smart. There is ample proof to the contrary.”
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.