'Rosenwald': Film Review

Rosenwald School - H 2015
Courtesy Fisk University, John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library, Special Collections

Rosenwald School - H 2015

This unsung hero well deserves this laudable cinematic profile.

Aviva Kempner's documentary recounts the little-known story of the Jewish businessman/philanthropist who gave millions to causes benefiting African-Americans.

It seems inconceivable that a mensch on the order of Julius Rosenwald has been neglected by history. This son of German-Jewish emigrants rose from a relatively modest upbringing to become vastly wealthy as the head of Sears Roebuck. But instead of simply luxuriating in his well-earned success, he devoted much of his life to philanthropy, particularly concerning African-American causes, in an era when racism was rampant. He helped fund over 5,300 schools during the early part of the 20th century, most of them in the Jim Crow South, and went on to give away some $62 million by his death in 1932.

Aviva Kempner's documentary succeeds in shedding much-needed light on its subject's beneficence that was inspired by his Jewish faith's mandate to engage in charity and good deeds. Most effectively, the film illustrates the tremendous effect his largesse had on the African-American community, which can be felt to this day.

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Born in 1862, Rosenwald grew up in Springfield, Illinois, in a house directly across the street from the pre-presidential home of Abraham Lincoln. Although Rosenwald dropped out of high school, he nonetheless had a canny business sense that eventually resulted in his becoming a major partner in the retail mail order catalogue business pioneered by Sears. He soon became the company's president, with his innovations of modernization and efficiency fueling its growth, making it the Amazon of its day.

Inspired by Booker T. Washington's autobiography Up from Slavery and feeling a kinship with African-Americans because of their shared history of persecution, he partnered with Washington to channel his fortune towards philanthropic causes. Besides the buildings that became known as Rosenwald Schools, he helped create black-geared YMCAs in dozens of cities; created a Chicago affordable-housing apartment complex whose residents included a young Quincy Jones (the composer's mother was once its manager); and sponsored fellowship grants to artists and scholars whose roster is a virtual Who's Who of modern black history. Among the recipients were James Baldwin, Marian Anderson, Katherine Dunham, Ralph Ellison, Dr. Charles Drew, Langston Hughes, Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence and others too numerous to mention. The program wasn't limited to blacks, as folk singer Woody Guthrie was also a beneficiary.

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Seen in still photographs and one short archival clip in which he makes a speech pointing out that rich and successful people are no smarter than anyone else but rather just lucky, Rosenwald was a modest figure, one who declined the opportunity to name Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, which he endowed, for himself.

The film is clearly a labor of love for Kempner, whose cinematic output concentrates on Jewish themes (The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, Partisans of Vilna, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg). But it seems equally a labor of love for its many interview subjects who describe how their lives were directly affected by Rosenwald's generosity. Among those effusively testifying to his impact are such figures as playwright/director George Wolfe, civil rights leader Julian Bond, Congressman John Lewis, journalist Eugene Robinson and the late poet Maya Angelou.

Rosenwald is not always successful in doing full justice to its rich subject matter, suffering from pacing problems and occasionally feeling drawn-out in its feature-length running time. Some careful pruning of the often repetitive interview segments would have resulted in a sharper, tighter film.  But it certainly deserves kudos for bringing long overdue attention to this unsung figure whose life was one big mitzvah.

Production: The Ciesla Foundation
Director/screenwriter/producer: Aviva Kempner
Directors of photography: Michael Moser, Chistopher Conder, Roger Grange, Mirko Popadic, Allen Rosen, Chapin Hall, Tom Kaufman, Dana Kupper, Stephan Mazurek
Editor: Marian Sears Huner
Composer: Zane Mark

Not rated, 95 minutes