With “Rosenwald,” Washington-based documentarian Aviva Kempner adds another pearl to her growing string of films celebrating Jewish American achievement. Like the filmmaker’s 1998 “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” which looked at the great professional baseball player, and “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” her 2009 profile of radio and television pioneer Gertrude Berg, “Rosenwald” is a thorough and engaging, if somewhat formally conventional, profile of a prominent citizen: Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932).
Unlike those earlier films, the subject of Kempner’s latest work is less remarkable for his personal accomplishments — the son of German immigrants, Rosenwald rose to become the head of Sears, Roebuck and Co., amassing a great fortune — than for what he did with that money on behalf of others. In the early years of the 20th century, Rosenwald donated millions to the construction of more than 5,300 schools in African American communities in the rural South.
A parade of alumni of these institutions, known as Rosenwald Schools, joins a chorus of historians and Rosenwald relatives to sing the Chicago philanthropist’s praises, and to establish context. These interviews are supplemented by what appear to be staged reenactments, featuring costumed actors, in scenes depicting the segregation and racism of the pre-Civil Rights era South.
It’s an effective technique, and it helps to alleviate some of the uniformity of the film’s talking heads. And although it takes a while to get to the meat of the story, the history of Sears that takes up a good chunk of the film’s first third is actually quite fascinating.
In addition to funding the construction of schools, Rosenwald’s charitable giving aided a who’s who of African American arts and letters. Among those receiving individual grants from the Rosenwald Fund, established in 1917, were visual artists Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence and Gordon Parks; writers Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison; and singer Marian Anderson.
Two books inspired Rosenwald, according to the film: educator and author Booker T. Washington’s autobiography “Up From Slavery” and “An American Citizen,” John Graham Brooks’s biography of William H. Baldwin Jr., a white industrialist who became a leading advocate for African American education in the late 19th century. Those works, along with the Jewish principles of tikkun olam (literally, “repairing the world”) and tzedakah (or “righteousness,” usually in the form of charitable giving), inspired Rosenwald’s remarkable benevolence.
The film is framed as the answer to a question: What made him do this for these kids?
The answer that seems to come closest to the truth is put forth by one of the film’s interview subjects: As a member of a “despised minority,” we’re told, Rosenwald closely identified with the struggles of African Americans (although Kempner presents scant evidence that he was the victim of anti-Semitism himself).
In that sense, “Rosenwald” isn’t just a portrait of a great, selfless American and his powerful company, but an excavation of an ugly strain of our own history, and a reminder of what one person can do to uproot it.
Unrated. At the Avalon, Cinema Arts Fairfax and Old Greenbelt. Contains brief disturbing images. 100 minutes.
Following the 8 p.m. show on Friday, the Avalon will present a Q&A with historian Stephanie Deutsch, who is featured in the film. Director Aviva Kempner will participate in Q&As after the following screenings: Saturday and Sunday at 5:15 and 8 p.m; Monday at 8 p.m (with Norris Dodson, who is featured in the film); Sept. 5 at 8 p.m.