When I met with Aviva Kempner, decorated documentarian and Cass Tech graduate, she kept making alternating references to Julius and Julian.
We were seated outside at the Maple Theater and Kitchen, enjoying the kitchen and anticipating the theater, albeit for a screening months away of a film that hadn’t been finished.
The Julius: Rosenwald, the subject of her forthcoming documentary (rosenwaldfilm.org). The Julian: Bond, an activist and politician who was interviewed for the film and advised on its production. Both men were on her mind.
Rosenwald built Sears, Roebuck into the country’s largest retailer and built more than 5,000 schools in the rural South when the doctrine of Separate But Equal made separate unavoidable and equal unachievable.
Bond was born in Tennessee in 1940, eight years after Rosenwald’s death. He placed himself on an arc that the Jewish philanthropist helped bend toward justice and progress. As Bond says in the film, the people that Rosenwald supported “are the predecessor generation to the Civil Rights generation that I’m a part of. And I’m a predecessor generation to the generation that resulted in the election of the first black president of the United States.”
Had Rosenwald just wrestled Jim Crow with his Southern schools and his support of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, it would have been enough. Then there was the Rosenwald Fund, “the single most important funding agency for African American culture in the 20th century,” as described by poet Rita Dove. The recipients of fellowships through the Rosenwald Fund in the 1930s and 40s were “a who’s who of Black America” — Langston Hughes, Ralph Bunche, W. E. B. DuBois were just a few of the 600 fellows.
Now that I’ve seen the film, a few thoughts:
- Spoiler alert. Rosenwald is exceptional. Exceptional in that it’s the story of an unsung hero, sung in a way that serves to amplify the voices of those he touched. (He’s barely in the latter part of the film.) It could have been a simple story of righteous benefactor and humble beneficiaries. Instead, the humble way in which Rosenwald gave away his fortune honored the righteousness of individuals and an oppressed people.
- The poster. That humility was why Rosenwald schools weren’t actually called Rosenwald Schools and Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry isn’t called the Rosenwald Museum. And yet, among the limited archival footage of Rosenwald the Philanthropist, a picture stands out: school girls in white dresses that spell his name, from a visit to one of the schools. Aviva lost sleep over this. Use a different picture for the poster? Use Photoshop to remove the letters? We pored over the alternatives (over pour-over coffee) and concerns that the visual looked exploitative and lacked the nuance of his partnerships with black leaders and communities.I’m glad Aviva stuck with the picture; it invites further inquiry and rewards those who don’t jump to conclusions, just as her filmmaking so effectively models.
- Julian. On Aug. 15, 2015, before the completion of the film, Bond died. As President Obama eulogized, “justice and equality was the mission that spanned his life” — a life in which he co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Southern Poverty Law Center, opposed the Vietnam War, won and then fought for his seats in the Georgia General Assembly. The New York Times described Bond as a “persistent opponent of the stubborn remnants of white supremacy.” Because Rosenwald, Bond and countless other activists, advocates and allies had the courage to take on the task of repairing the world, it is incumbent upon us to continue it.
Aviva is a testament to the fact that you can take the girl out of Detroit, but you can’t take Detroit out of the girl — not only for her documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, but also for her grit, passion and compassion.
Sometimes I go to the movies by myself. I like the anonymity and the popcorn. Call it a guilty pleasure. But I want to see Rosenwald with you. I’d feel guilty if I didn’t invite you — even if I have to share my popcorn (or yours, medium butter). I insist.
I will have the distinct privilege of moderating a Q&A with Aviva (and you!) after the screening on Sept. 26 at 7 p.m. at the Riviera Cinema, 30170 Grand River Ave. in Farmington Hills.