Philanthropy has a way of softening our opinions about people we otherwise might thoroughly dislike. The robber barons of the late 19th and early 20th century were certainly capitalist pigs of the first order, and they knew it, but it’s hard not to be thankful for the bucket-loads of cash they donated to build hospitals and museums, support worthy causes, and (of course) cement their legacy.
It’s unlikely, however, that there was much to dislike about Sears, Roebuck bigwig Julius Rosenwald in the first place — at least judging from Aviva Kempner’s documentary Rosenwald, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Sept.11. If ever there were a righteous rich man, Julius Rosenwald was he.
Born of Jewish immigrant parents in Springfield, Illinois in 1862, Rosenwald began his working life in the family clothing store. After dropping out of high school at 16 he apprenticed to his uncle in New York City, then moved to Chicago, where he opened his own shop. He would spend the rest of his life in the Windy City, eventually becoming rich beyond imagining after buying into Sears, Roebuck when Alvah Roebuck decided he’d had enough of the volatile retail trade.
A friendship with financier Paul Sachs led to Rosenwald’s discovery of prominent African-American thinkers William Baldwin and Booker T. Washington. Sachs and Rosenwald became committed to improving the living conditions of African Americans throughout the country – particularly in the Deep South and Chicago, a major terminus point of the Great Migration of the mid-20th century.
Rosenwald focuses on its namesake’s greatest accomplishment: the construction of over 5,000 schools in the rural South that educated a generation of black Americans, including author Maya Angelou, civil rights leader John Lewis, and columnist Eugene Robinson. Julius, however, wasn’t satisfied with schools alone, and, prior to his death in 1932, funded the construction of a model housing estate on the south side of Chicago, the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments (Quincy Jones, Joe Lewis and Jesse Owens all lived there at one time or another), as well as the Museum of Science and Industry.
This is a deeply informative and frequently moving documentary, not least because the recently deceased Julian Bond is one of its most prominent talking heads. It relies a wee bit too much on excerpts from television shows and movies to keep the narrative moving, though it’s great fun seeing Clint Eastwood being schooled in the ways of Judaism in an old episode of “Rawhide.”
Sadly, the narrative doesn’t extend beyond 1948, when Rosenwald’s financial legacy was, as he intended, exhausted. We’re told that many of the Rosenwald schools were destroyed by arson or dynamite, and that the remainder closed after Brown v. Board of Education, but it would have been fascinating to learn if any the buildings still exist today. Likewise, what’s the current state of the Michigan Boulevard building?
Kempner’s film does overlook the one black mark on Julius Rosenwald’s life — a 1915 indictment for failing to pay property taxes. The case was quashed, but the film should probably have acknowledged it nonetheless: after all, despite all the good he did, even Julius Rosenwald was a flawed human being, like all of us, as well as a capitalist.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.
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