Filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington and celebrity chef Charlie Trotter have three things in common. For one, they all hail from the great state of Illinois. For another, all three would go on to become genuine trailblazers in their respective fields of expertise. Finally, each one is the subject of a documentary playing at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival. They each tell fascinating stories of individuals whose significance transcends ordinary borders.
Of the three, the name that might not register immediately to much of the general public is Micheaux’s but as Francesco Zippel’s “Oscar Micheaux—The Superhero of Black Filmmaking” clearly demonstrates, he was a man with a life and career so astonishing that not only is it eminently worthy of documentary treatment but if someone tried to pitch it as a screenplay, there's a very good chance it might get rejected on the basis that his story was simply too good to be believable. Born in the town of Metropolis in 1884, Micheaux grew up on a farm and eventually made his way to Chicago, where he secured a job on the railroads as a Pullman porter, a position that offered him a decent salary and the chance to travel and interact with people he might not have encountered otherwise. He then used his savings to purchase some land in South Dakota that he worked as a homesteader. He took his experiences as a homesteader and turned them into a series of novels that he published and sold himself to great success. His third novel, The Homesteader (1918), would attract the attention of a film producer, but when he was unable to secure the amount of control over his material that he wanted, Micheaux turned it down and elected to make the film himself, using connections that he made as a porter and sales of shares from the production company he founded to finance it. This would kick off a filmmaking career that would consist of more than 40 films (including “Within Our Gates” , a blistering riposte to “The Birth of a Nation,” and “Body and Soul” , which marked the screen debut of Paul Robeson and which would be named to the National Film Registry in 2019) stretching until a couple of years before his passing in 1951 and make him, in the words of film scholar Jacqueline Stewart, “the most important black filmmaker who ever lived.”
Stewart is one of a number of contemporary voices on hand attesting to the importance of Micheaux and his work, ranging from academics to the late filmmakers John Singleton, Haskell Wexler and Melvin van Peebles, alongside archival materials and clips from a number of his surviving films. Granted, some of these clips may come across as a little stilted and awkward (especially the ones made after the shift from silent to talkies made it harder to overlook questionable acting), but when you consider that he was making these far outside the Hollywood system on budgets that could charitably be called shoestring, they do evoke a certain fascination. Film critic J. Hoberman once wrote a piece comparing Micheaux to Ed Wood and while I would disagree with that assessment, they did both demonstrate a burning desire to create cinema that could be detected despite the threadbare trappings of their respective works. More importantly, Micheaux’s work also demonstrated a strong social conscience that could not be denied—even a seemingly innocuous courtroom drama like “Murder in Harlem” (1935) was inspired by the infamous 1913 trial of Leo Frank for the murder of Mary Phagan, and a film like “Body and Soul” evokes a considerable amount of power to this day. Although never quite as groundbreaking as the works of Micheaux himself, Zippel’s film is nevertheless a fascinating reminder of a largely unsung part of American cinema history and should leave most viewers yearning to explore his work for themselves.
The name of Harold Washington, on the other hand, continues to have resonance with many people. And as is revealed in Joe Winston’s “Punch 9 for Harold Washington,” there was a point when it seemed as if the eyes of the world were on Chicago in the early months of 1983 when the one-time congressman shocked the political establishment by becoming the city’s first African-American mayor, a notion that even at that comparatively late date was seemingly unthinkable to many people. As the film shows, he managed to accomplish this task by taking advantage of the upheaval left by the death of long-running Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1976, the inability of successor Michael Bilandic to successfully handle the 1979 Chicago Blizzard and the disappointment over his successor, Jane Byrne. The election turned into a bitter contest when the Republicans, not to mention a number of high-ranking Democrats, fearing their possible loss of power to the Washington coalition, backed Bernard Epton, who ran a campaign so ugly and racially charged that in one of the film’s present interviews, his son practically weeps at the memory of the sheer ugliness on display.
Rather than serve as a full documentary on Washington’s life, "Punch 9 for Harold Washington" devotes most of its first half to a recounting of that 1983 election and the remainder to his tumultuous term in office, which ended prematurely when he died of a massive heart attack a few months after his 1987 reelection and which saw him in constant conflict with the same establishment politicians from his own party that tried to prevent him from getting elected in the first place. As a kid with a keen interest in politics, I remember watching the drama surrounding that 1983 campaign with great fascination and watching “Punch 9” brought back those memories in a rush to such an extent that I could even remember seeing some of the events and news reports captured in the archival materials, such as the primary debate between Washington, Byrne and not-quite-heir-apparent Richard M. Daley that is often regarded as the turning point for his campaign, as they were first occurring. The film also takes pains to point out the parallels between the difficulties Washington faced in both his campaigns and term in office with those encountered by Barack Obama in the course of becoming the first African-American President (and indeed, there is even a photo shown featuring Washington working yet another room with Obama standing in the background and observing it all). Outside of the unfortunate absence of excerpts from “Council Wars,” the hilarious series of sketches written and performed by local comedian/radio host Aaron Freeman that brilliantly filtered the ongoing City Council skirmishes through the template of the “Star Wars” films, “Punch 9 for Harold Washington” is about as complete of a recounting of this significant chapter of Chicago history as one could hope to see, and one that you don’t have to be a political junkie to appreciate.
Washington’s legacy, even without the documentary, is pretty secure but with her film, “Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter,” director Rebecca Halpern finds herself in the position of making a case for someone who had clearly fallen from their position of prestige due to a combination of changing times and a legacy that would grow increasingly complicated in his later years, leading up to his untimely death in 2013. Using a treasure trove of archival photos, home movies and videos along with interviews with friends, colleagues and loved ones, the film follows Trotter from his earliest days working at places like the Ground Round and then moving on to slightly more prestigious positions in kitchens in California and Florida before returning home to Chicago in 1987 to open his own take on a gourmet restaurant. As he had never run his own kitchen prior to this, such a move raised the eyebrows of the culinary establishment, as did the then-novel concept of giving diners a 10-course “tasting menu” that changed regularly instead of focusing on one thing. However, from the moment Charlie Trotter’s opened, it was a huge success that had people coming in from all over the world to dine and would make Trotter so famous that he would even play himself in a cameo role in the hit Julia Roberts film “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”
As the film reveals, however, the over-the-top version of himself that he played in that film (“I’m gonna kill your whole family if you don’t get this right!”) was only somewhat of an exaggeration—his workaholic nature and fiery temper would wreak havoc on friendships and a couple of marriages and when a number of his workers won a 2003 class-action suit settlement over unpaid back wages, he proved to be vindictive towards anyone who took the money. In the wake of the closing of his restaurant in 2012, he found his reputation tarnished through such strange and widely reported incidents as selling a counterfeit bottle of $45,000 wine and disrupting an after-school program being held at the former restaurant site. He also suffered from significant health issues—when he did pass away, the two things jumbled in the minds of many who felt that there was more to his death than was reported at the time.
“Love, Charlie” has two things working against it. For one, it is the latest in a long string of culinary-themed documentaries that have come down the pike in the last couple of years—so many that a number of the famous fellow chefs on display offering observations of Trotter’s work and influence have been the subjects of their own films—and viewers who do not already watch the Food Network on a 24-hour loop may find themselves growing a bit weary with that particular sub-genre at this point. For another, this may not be quite the right time to offer up anything remotely resembling a apologia for bad behavior from a rich and powerful man against his employees, especially when it involves them getting fairly paid for their efforts. Beyond that, however, the film does do a good job of showing how Trotter and his innovations helped to bridge the gap between the likes of Julia Child, who was a key influence in bringing gourmet cooking to the masses by taking the mystery out of it (which Trotter would famously build upon by offering a table for customers in the middle of his bustling kitchen, which became arguably the hottest table in Chicago since Booth One at the Pump Room) and the denizens currently inhabiting the Food Network. It also offers some much-needed illumination regarding that odd behavior in his later years and the seriousness of the medical problems that he tried to keep under wraps. For these reasons, “Love, Charlie” is worth a look—just make sure to leave time afterwards to get something to eat because you will almost certainly be a little peckish.
All three films will be showing via in-person and virtual screenings. For more information on these and other films screening at the 57th Chicago International Film Festival, including showtimes, locations, ticket availability and Virtual Cinema access, go to the festival’s website ator call them at (312)332-3456.