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Rosenwald suggests a 60 Minutes segment achingly stretched out to feature length. Director Aviva Kempner traces the history of Julius Rosenwald from his modest beginnings in Illinois to becoming the head of Sears, Roebuck & Company, and his philanthropic cause of building schools in the segregated South so African-American children could be afforded the same education as whites. The film hardly sinks into outright hagiography, and after spending far too much outlining the Rosenwald family and its origins, Kempner settles into a discussion on Julius himself. Instead of lauding the man’s legacy, the filmmaker gathers a group of talking heads to thoughtfully theorize on reasons why a perversely wealthy Midwestern Jewish man would find kinship in the oppressed African-American community, who were at the mercy of Jim Crow laws. Movingly, congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis addresses the feelings of longing that gripped him as a child in the South while flipping through a Sears catalogue. But Kempner eventually exhausts the interviews to such an extent that the subjects begin to repeat themselves and stray into irrelevant topics; not only does Maya Angelou get to speak of the complex emotions she felt toward her school and white schools in her adolescent years, but she goes on at length about the physical look of the Rosenwald schools. The documentary’s last third is devoted to Rosenwald establishing a grant, with Kempner extensively profiling subsequent recipients to the point where each one proves to have an increasingly tangential relationship to the subject at hand. If it wasn’t for Kempner’s stretch for relevancy by seemingly implying that the advances of the modern civil rights movement were solely the result of the grants alone, as well as a memorial picture of Rosenwald himself, it’d be hard to remember what the film was initially about in the first place.

Ciesla Foundation
100 min
Aviva Kempner
Aviva Kempner
Peter Ascoli, Julian Bond, Stephanie Deutsch, Richard J. Powell, Eugene Robinson, George C. Wolfe