A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
Aviva Kempner’s “Rosenwald” begins by focusing its inquisitive lens on a mystifying anomaly. Who is the white man prominently framed on the wall of numerous black schools located throughout the American South? This question turns out to be the thread that unravels a historical yarn for the ages. Most viewers will likely have little-to-no familiarity with the events recounted in this documentary, and are guaranteed to leave the theater feeling enlightened and perhaps more than a touch gobsmacked.
A majority of Windy City residents still stubbornly refer to the Willis Tower by its previous name, the Sears Tower, which remains the nation’s tallest building. Yet even that sizable tourist destination would be rendered a mere toothpick when contrasted with the towering legacy of former Sears & Roebuck CEO Julius Rosenwald. The man was many things at once: a high school dropout, a brilliant entrepreneur, a profit-driven businessman and a fiercely devoted philanthropist. He never met Abraham Lincoln, who died when Rosenwald was only 3, but his family’s house was located across the street from the President’s Springfield residence. Kempner’s film suggests that Rosenwald may be a key link between Lincoln and Obama, in how the black schools he assisted in building—which numbered over 5,300—educated the generation that preceded the civil rights movement.
As a biographer of Jewish icons unknown to many modern viewers, Kempner never gets in the way of her own material. There are no overt stylistic flourishes to distract from the strength of her story, which builds a cumulative power as it unfolds. Viewers weary of pictures deifying the hideous “white savior” trope will be pleased by how Kempner explores the bond between Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington, while illustrating that it was, in fact, their partnership that led to the creation of the “Rosenwald schools.” After reading Washington’s memoir “Up from Slavery,” coupled with William Henry Baldwin, Jr.’s “An American Citizen,” Rosenwald was reportedly motivated to aid African-Americans in their struggle against the racist barriers forged by society. He often likened the Cossacks’ attacks on Jews with the white persecution of blacks, and considered himself a “member of a despised minority.”
In an era when black people were banned from countless public spaces, and weren’t even pictured within the pages of the Sears catalogue, Rosenwald provided funding to YMCAs and housing complexes that would welcome them, albeit within segregated conditions. Though the footage of smiling tenants strolling through Rosenwald’s Michigan Avenue Garden apartments, built after the Great Migration, is presented in a positive light, the box-like shape of the structure resembles a well-manicured prison. The most joyous imagery of all occurs in the schools themselves, with their high ceilings, spacious rooms and impeccably placed windows to ensure strong natural lighting. While giving away hundreds of thousands of dollars on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday, Rosenwald was encouraged by Washington to donate a portion of the money to build schools for Southern black children. The masterstroke in Rosenwald’s offer was his insistence that he would provide a third of the funding if the respective community would contribute the rest. These schools weren’t handed down from the heavens, they were built from the ground up by the very same people whose children attended them. Among their formidably accomplished alumni was Maya Angelou, who recounts in an archival interview how a child receiving A’s “would be marched from one church to another,” as the congregations beamed with pride.
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