FROM HIS bloodlines and his sight-lines, Michael Stevens knows a little something about saluting giants.
The D.C. native is, of course, the grandson of towering director George Stevens, the Oscar-winning helmsman literally behind “Giant.” And the son of Oscar-nominated George Stevens Jr., whose documentaries and Kennedy Center Honors productions have chronicled and saluted many of modern American culture’s great figures. Plus, for decades, the talented Emmy-winning grandson himself has worked on AFI Tributes and Honors shows and other Washington-based productions.
On Thursday, the city got to see how Michael Stevens — working with regular co-writer Sara Lukinson — would chronicle one of Washington’s greatest journalistic giants.
“Herblock: The Black & the White” made its D.C. debut Thursday night at the Newseum, as part of the AFI Docs Film Festival (which concludes today with a Best of the Fest schedule). Many of the documentary’s interview subjects were in attendance, too, including numerous Post journalists, other District-based news media figures – and even a cartoonist or two.
And that assemblage, as it happens, gets precisely at my point.
Stevens and Lukinson have delivered an elegant and clear-eyed film that provides an inspiring portrait of Herblock, the legendary Post political cartoonist who visually commented on world events ranging from the Depression through the Bush-Gore election. Over the decades, the multiple Pulitzer winner gained rare editorial freedom as his graphite lines sometimes moved from commentary into crusade. Through fluid storytelling, “The Black & the White” explores the man and canvas; through news clips and vintage footage, dramatic re-creation and scores of one-on-one interviews, the film effectively alternates between the politics and headlines of each era (McCarthyism, civil rights, Watergate) and Herbert Block’s personal rhythms and newsroom anecdotes.
[HERBLOCK TRIBUTE: Remembering the legend a decade after his death]
The film comes especially alive when we reach Watergate, and such crucial figures as The Post’s Ben Bradlee, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein animatedly recount how far ahead of the headlines Herblock was (his famed cartoon tracking Watergate to the White House ran less than a week after the break-in). Even more animated is the kinetic Washington-born comedian Lewis Black, who — appearing late in the film -- conveys with just a few words and electric expressions what some commentators take paragraphs to say.
And that moment with Black highlights my one request for this good and necessary film, especially as this 93-minute docu apparently seeks a distributor:
Amid the many columnists and pundits and political figures, Mr. Stevens, I’d urge you to do one thing: Send in (more of) the satirists.
As numerous people noted when I spoke to them during the screening’s after-party, many of the film’s most memorable moments came when Black or his “Daily Show” cohort, Jon Stewart, was onscreen; they were concisely brilliant in their understanding of why Herblock’s cartoons work. A few times, when we got to hear from Pulitzer-winning cartoonists Jules Feiffer and Matt Wuerker (Politico), as well as New Yorker cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff, “Black & the White” gained depths of understanding as to how so much power derives for lines rendered in black and white.
Speaking through my full bias as a comics fan and former editorial cartoonist, I would love to see footage from Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist Tom Toles, who literally inherited not only Herblock’s Post perch, but his actual, storied office. (And would win the Herblock Prize about a decade later.)
And thinking beyond the Beltway: What of David Horsey? I understand those were Horsey’s drawings that stood in for Herblock’s would-be sketches in a re-creation scene – but I’d certainly like to like to hear from the Pulitzer-winning Los Angeles Times cartoonist himself.
I especially longed to hear from Mike Peters, the Pulitzer-winning Dayton Daily News cartoonist who, early in his career, was a next-wave contemporary of Block’s. Peters, who spoke at Herblock’s 2001 memorial service in the National Cathedral, once told me a great story about how Herblock urged the young Peters not to fraternize with “the enemy” — to avoid those mixers and other D.C. events at which you might rub shoulders and bent elbows with politicians. Briefly eschewing Herblock’s advice, Peters told Comic Riffs — with jest — that he once saw a top official of multiple presidential administrations riding a unicycle at one party — and the cartoonist’s opinion of the man was bent toward the warm (even just a bit) ever since.
In “The Black and the White,” Michael Stevens’s camera depicts the art of laying down a drawn line with especial cinematic warmth. And the Herblock cartoons that often appear behind the speakers loom luminous — the master’s graphite reproducing beautifully, losing nothing as a once-small cartoon is enlarged to the size of a massive screen. Herblock’s lines and textures – like many of his opinions on civil rights, Watergate and McCarthy – hold up wonderfully to close examination decades later.
With that same care, I would relish seeing the art of visual satire explored further.
Herblock, at his best, was a genius at his craft. Why not let his fellow, incisive practitioners of satire come up to the mike even more?
As Black and Feiffer showed: In just a few words, they — like Herblock — really know how to nail a line.
[HERBLOCK AT HALF-CENTURY: Library of Congress show illuminates cartoonist’s brilliance in 1963]
[LEWIS BLACK: The Post Magazine Profile]