Rosenwald is a documentary that unearths a little-known nugget of American history that deserves to be brought into plain view. While director Aviva Kempner’s approach is straightforward, the story she’s telling is so fascinating that it trumps the lack of stylistic flourishes.
Julius Rosenwald was the 19th century businessman who turned Sears & Roebuck into what one commentator describes as the Amazon of its day, making himself fabulously wealthy in the process. But instead of hoarding his riches, he gave much of his money away, specifically to African-American causes even though he was of Jewish-European descent. He helped fund a circuit of more than 5000 schools for African-American children in the South called the Rosenwald Schools, was on the board of Tuskegee Institute, and launched the Rosenwald Fund for black artists and scientists (Ralph Ellison, Gordon Parks, Langston Hughes. Dr. Charles Drew, and some whites, like Woody Guthrie, were all beneficiaries).
With an array of talking heads (some of whom, like Julian Bond and Ossie Davis, are no longer with us), archival footage, and a striking use of such period music as Lift Every Voice and Sing (The Black National Anthem) and What a Wonderful World, Rosenwald is not only a sketch of a man’s memorable life but of a particular time and place that directly led to the Civil Rights movement.
The film is right in line with Kempner’s other works -- such as The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg which chronicles the first Jewish baseball star -- but as long as she keeps excavating these illuminating treasures of the Jewish-American past, that she’s not doing anything radically new fades in importance.
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Director: Aviva Kempner
Cast: Julian Bond, Ossie Davis, Eugene Robinson
Running time: 100 min.