Talking to the camera at the beginning of Aviva Kempner's "Rosenwald," an African-American woman says that if Julius Rosenwald were alive today, she'd ask him, "What was it that really made you want to do this for all these kids?" The question seems slightly obnoxious, given Rosenwald's enormous contributions to African-American education, culture and housing, but Kempner sets out to answer it as best she can, during what is her exhaustively researched and revelatory journey into Rosenwald's life and philanthropy.
Does she succeed? Does it matter? There is some testimony from religious leaders that Rosenwald (1862-1932) was a believer in the Jewish tenet of tzedakah (loosely, charity) and that he possessed an ethnic memory of the pogroms of Europe and saw them reflected in the way blacks were treated in the Jim Crow South. But Rosenwald, as portrayed by Kempner, would have rejected psychoanalysis as readily as he rejected fame or credit for his good works, financed by the fortune he made with Sears Roebuck. His work speaks for him: At a time when education among southern blacks was virtually nonexistent, Rosenwald, as a result of his association with Booker T. Washington, built more than 5,300 or so schools throughout the south, changing the lives of thousands. His philanthropies also enabled -- if not made possible -- the work of such artists as Langston Hughes, Marian Anderson, Zora Neale Hurston and Jacob Lawrence. He built housing and museums in Chicago. He put his name on very little.
Kempner is sort of the Ken Burns of Judaica. Her films include "The Partisans of Vilna," "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" and "Yoo Hoo Mrs. Goldberg" about actress Gertrude Berg and the early sitcom "The Goldbergs." Kempner's movies take so long to make that they serve as time capsules regardless of subject: Maya Angelou, Ossie Davis and now, Julian Bond, are among the people who've died since sitting for Kempner's camera. But what everyone in the film testifies about, enthusiastically, eloquently and often with firsthand knowledge is the enormous contribution the man made to their lives, as well as to the quality of his country.