By Andrea Gronvall email@example.com
THE GRONVALL REPORT: Aviva Kempner Talks ROSENWALD
Before screening Rosenwald, the new documentary by Aviva Kempner (The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg), I had never heard of Julius Rosenwald. Sure, I was familiar with the retail giant he helped build—Chicago-based Sears, Roebuck & Company—mostly because it offered household appliances and auto tires at the best price, in the days before big-box discounters. But as for the front-office titan who died in 1932, how many today know that he was equally (if not more) important as an early trailblazer in the American civil rights movement? More folks below the Mason-Dixon line than above, I’m guessing.
Rosenwald’s life story is the embodiment of the American dream. The son of a German-Jewish immigrant peddler, Julius was born in 1862 in Springfield, Illinois, and grew up across the street from Abraham Lincoln’s residence. In New York he learned the clothing trade, then moved to Chicago to open his own business. Not long afterwards he joined Sears, rising rapidly as he grew its core mail-order business. By 1925 he had ushered the firm into the retail department store marketplace. Along the way he and the company, which he helped take public, became very wealthy.
But Rosenwald had a vision not only for business, but for the wider world as well. Inspired by his progressive Reform rabbi, the influential Emil G. Hirsch, Julius developed a passion for social justice, especially on behalf of blacks persecuted in the Jim Crow South and marginalized in the segregated Northern cities to which they fled. His first major philanthropic efforts raised money to build YMCAs and YWCAs across the country for job-seeking African-American migrants. After meeting Booker T. Washington, Rosenwald undertook a long campaign to build over 5,300 schools in the South for black children shut out of white schools. The Julius Rosenwald Fund also gave rise to a fellowship fund that financially supported many struggling black artists, including Marian Anderson, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jacob Lawrence.
I caught up with Washington, D.C.-based director Kempner during her recent trip to Los Angeles, where Rosenwald was previewed both at the Museum of Tolerance and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in advance of its Los Angeles opening this weekend.
Andrea Gronvall: What is your working method? Do you do purely research first, or do you add to your researches as time goes on? How do you target your interview subjects, and how much travel does it take to recruit all these talking heads? There are over 60 in your film.
Aviva Kempner: I’m very lucky; in all my films there were several books already written, so that helps a lot. Here there were books by [Julius’ grandson and biographer] Peter Ascoli, Stephanie Deutsch, and Julian Bond, consultants who agreed to be in the film. [Washington Post columnist and Rosenwald school alumnus] Eugene Robinson is a friend from D.C. Through another friend I got to Maya Angelou, and on a hunch I contacted the office of Representative John Lewis. If I had all the production money up front, I would have done this continuously. But I’d get funding, then I’d film, then I’d run out of funding and would have to stop. Then I’d get more funding and resume. I’m also lucky that a lot of people who had stories vital to the film live in Washington. Research takes months and months.
When you work 12 years on a film, you want to do everything you can. I couldn’t envision that this film would come out during the summer of all these violent racist attacks across the country.
AG: How you’ve structured the film is interesting, stylistically. The first part, which is primarily about Julius’s early years and rise in business, feels like a time capsule. Since of course there could be no motion picture footage of him when he was younger, you rely on archival print sources, artwork, and some judiciously chosen clips from twentieth century movies and TV shows to paint a picture of his life from around the turn of that century. I recognized The Music Man, The Frisco Kid, Young Mr. Lincoln, and TV’s “Rawhide,” but what other clips did you use?
AK: The feature footage is what costs a lot, but HBO and CBS were wonderful, and didn’t charge me much for clips like “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” With “Rawhide,” Clint Eastwood has been particularly supportive. One young person who saw the documentary looked at the scene where Gene Wilder’s character gets married in The Frisco Kid and congratulated me on getting my hands on such rare footage. So I guess the fictional feature clips did their job of standing in for actuality footage that never existed! I also found some footage from the National Archives and the Library of Congress; you don’t have to pay rights for footage that’s in the public domain, just [the cost of] transfers.
I’m also pleased with the original animation in the film. My editor, Marian Sears Hunter, has great ideas, and I enjoyed brainstorming with her and our animator, Carol Hilliard. For me, the real point in those early sequences is where we learn how Rabbi Hirsch stressed the importance of healing the world [the Jewish concept of tikkun olam]. We all can’t have the riches of Julius Rosenwald, but we can all do our part to make the world a better place.
AG: So, that first part of the film is akin to Rosenwald’s planting the seeds for what would be an achievement arguably even greater than the soaring fortunes of Sears: Julius’s charitable foundation. Once we get to the story of all those who benefited from the educational, career, and housing opportunities his foundation provided, it’s as though the film blooms, there is such a profusion of colorful life stories.
AK: Thank you. I see the movie in three parts: (1) his early years, business, and what made the man; (2) his partnership with Booker T. Washington and the schools; and (3) the Rosenwald Fund Fellowship Program. What the fellowship fund was really about was how it’s important to support artists of all kinds and stripes [Woody Guthrie was also a fund recipient]. Right now at the Museum of Modern Art there’s an exhibition of works by Jacob Lawrence. His is a great legacy, as is Marion Anderson’s. Yet I have young people here working on the film who didn’t even know who Marion Anderson was.
AG: The mission of your foundation, the Ciesla Foundation, is to produce films about Jewish figures whose fame has perhaps been eclipsed by time.
AK: In Polish “ciesla” means “roof carpenter,” so in a sense it’s symbolic of how I’m trying to build a structure of a film, a story, and to educate people on the topic. I’ve made movies about “under known” Jewish heroes, those who fought against fascism, anti-Semitism, sexism, McCarthyism, and racism.
AG: Your films have played well with Jewish audiences; how will you be getting the word about Rosenwald out to black viewers?
AK: It’s all our common history. I had the honor of presenting the film at a recent NAACP convention, where Julian Bond and Rabbi David Saperstein spoke. I have interns working outreach to churches, colleges, and community institutions. In every city we’re trying to get a coalition of speakers that are representative of the film to speak to audiences. I think of it like a political campaign.
[The great American statesman and civil rights leader Julian Bond passed away on August 15. A former student activist who would later serve in Georgia’s House of Representatives and the Georgia Senate, he was also the co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center and chairman emeritus of the NAACP. It was Bond who was Kempner’s inspiration for her film, after she heard him speak at Martha’s Vineyard 12 years ago about the impact Julius Rosenwald had on Bond’s own family. May his memory be a blessing.]
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