Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Get an Oscar polished up: Aviva Kempner's new doc, ROSENWALD, arrives in theaters

What a joy and what a great learning experience is ROSENWALD, the terrifically entertaining, moving and eye-opening new documentary from Aviva Kempner, the filmmaker who has previously given us two other first-rate docs: Yoo-hoo, Mrs Goldberg and The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg. This new one is her best so far. TrustMovies admits to knowing almost nothing about Julius Rosenwald, the businessman who brought to prominence and then ran Sears, Roebuck & Company, the most famous mercantile film in U.S. history. After viewing this film, I suspect you'll think of Mr. Rosenwald as the most deservedly famous businessman/philanthropist in U.S. history.

Upfront, the movie tells us that Rosenwald was an extremely savvy and competitive business man. The choice anecdote about catalog size and Sears' largest competitor, Montgomery Ward, is a perfect example of Rosenwald's acumen. I suspect that our hero was not above using dirty tricks in business, but the movie doesn't go much into that. Instead its focus is on Rosenwald as a philanthropist. And what a singular "giver" he turns out to have been.

As a Jew whose family had experienced the horrible pogroms that raged throughout Europe, Russia and the Ukraine, Rosenwald came to understand how similar to those pogroms was the treatment of Blacks here in the southern states of the USA: from the lynchings to the woefully second-class citizenship they were given -- particularly in regards to their often barely-to-non-existent education. Born and raised only a few blocks from the residence of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, Julius was a boy when Lincoln was President, and he admired and believed in the work and goals of the "Great Emancipator."

Filmmaker Kempner, shown above, weaves together the personal with the historical regarding Mr. Rosenwald, but what makes her documentary such a keeper is how she blends in Black history to such an important extent that her film becomes as much a tribute to the struggle and success of the American Negro as it is to Rosenwald himself. The philanthropist had a supremely fine idea of how to gift his largess: One-third came from him, one third was matched by the recipients, and the final third came from the local white community. This made his education grants serve at least a dual purpose: they brought much needed money to the black community, while simultaneously empowering that community.

As the film wends its most interesting way along, we learn bit by bit, man and woman by man and woman -- via interviews with everyone from Julian Bond and Stephanie Deutsch to Eugene Robinson and George C. Wolfe -- just how many important members of the Black community Rosenwald and his philanthropy actually helped, from the great Booker T. Washington (shown below with Rosenwald) onwards. The number of Black southerners who received an education via Rosenwald, along with the help of their own community and other generous whites, will simply amaze you.

The final capper, however, is the lengthy list of cultural, social, educational and artistic icons for whom his generosity provided an entry into a world that they might never have known -- and by their entry into which has made that world incredibly richer. The film's great strength is that is simultaneously acts as a fitting tribute to both the giver and his recipients.

We need a documentary like Rosenwald, now especially, as our nation falls ever more precariously into chaos. What a model Julius makes for the enlightened businessman and seeker of justice, and for the kind of quasi-Capitalism/quasi-Socialism that seems to have all but disappeared from our society. Not only did Rosenwald not want his name attached to his schools or to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, which his gifts brought into being, he actively refrained from this kind of vanity tub-thumping.

When the model businessman of today is too-often perceived as someone like Donald Trump (who should have to see this film with the wax removed from his ears and his blabber mouth taped shut), Rosenwald appears as some kind of sudden, shocking blessing. In its own way, it proves as important and rewarding as the equally inspiring doc, Searching for Sugar Man. And we all know what happened to that smart little film.

Rosenwald, running 96 remarkable minutes, opens this Friday, August 14, in New York City at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema, and from there in the weeks to come it will expand throughout the country. (In the L.A. area, it hits three Laemmle theaters on August 28.) To see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here and scroll down.

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