America’s full of rags-to-riches stories, or in this case, not-quite-rags-to-amazing-riches stories, and I seldom get tired of them. But Rosenwald, the story of Julius Rosenwald, son of Jewish Immigrants who parlayed a modest life as a clothier into mega-riches as the CEO of Sears Roebuck is only partly about that.
It’s tremendously fun to listen to how Rosenwald made bank in Men’s clothes and then seized an opportunity to invest in Sears, ultimately becoming the CEO through a process that was a 19th century version of creating Amazon.com. His people came from peddlers, who had to place all their wares on a blanket every town they went to. The idea of creating what came to be known as “the wish book"—the Sears catalogue—and then demanding that products were delivered as promised, and quickly, bears a remarkable resemblance to Bezos’ empire, only with roller skates and conveyer belts instead of drones and computers.
Sears’ IPO—the movie seems to claim this was one of the first IPOs, which seems unlikely since the very first one was Bank of North America in 1782 and Sears IPOed in 1906—made Rosenwald a billionaire, which brings us to the next phase of his life, and the movie.
In the second part of the movie, we learn of Rosenwald’s philanthropy, which was shrewd, effective, and humble in a way one can hardly imagine today. He was not interested in personal glory; many of his projects were given his name, but by affection, not officially. In fact, he seemed positively chagrined at the notion that he might raise money for the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago while calling it The Rosenwald Institute. And so, it was never officially called that, but if you Google it, well, that’s another story.
This part of the film is also fairly good, and gets at the theme of the movie, which is Rosenwald’s contributions to the black community. In a time when racial tensions were possibly at their highest (pre-WWII), Rosenwald’s foundation built thousands of schools. Well, correction: Rosenwald contributed a third of the funds, a third of the funds had to be raised locally, and the remaining third had to come from somewhere else, presumably the surrounding white communities or state and local governments.
But then, rather brilliantly, with money in hand, the community literally built its own school, made it their own, and made it a focal point for community activities. Rosenwald actually suggested buying the buildings from the Sears catalogues, but Tuskegee University architect Robert Taylor insisted on this approach, and the two of them seemed to have a felicitous influence on each other.
There’s a digression here into Tuskegee University which is amazing. (Tuskegee, not the digression) Taylor designed TU to be self-sufficient, given that they couldn’t count on help from the outside world. So, not just construction and cleaning, but gardening, plumbing—everything!—was done by the students in addition to their academic and artistic efforts. That to me sounds like a perfect school. (In fact, I had that very idea for a school when I was in college.)
But, here’s the thing: The last third of the movie is just wall-to-wall digressions and tangentially related stories of people who Rosenwald’s fund influenced. Worse than that, they commit the crime of just listing off bunches of names of people. I wouldn’t dispute the greatness of the people on this list, particularly the ones they highlighted (e.g., Marian Anderson), and there are some moving stories told.
Still, it’s not exactly keeping the eye on the ball, narrative wise. Rosenwald died in ‘32, meaning that the last third of the movie deals heavily in stuff that happened long after Rosenwald—who cleverly sunsetted his foundation in ’48 so it didn’t become a monstrosity like Ford, Rockefeller, etcetera—had shuffled off his mortal coil.
The Flower didn’t mind this aspect so much, perhaps because the stories are not without interest. The Boy absolutely hated it. He felt lectured to, and he’s not crazy about lectures.
I had a slightly different take. Emotionally somewhere between The Flower and The Boy, I was more intrigued by the movie’s absolute failure to address the elephants in the room. And there’s a herd of elephants.
It’s perhaps unkind to note that the world all the commentators (John Lewis, Maya Angelou) are waxing on is gone, and they either helped it on its way or silently watched it go. I hate to get all judgy here, but a world where everyone is encouraged to achieve and advance on the same playing field is far preferable to what we have now: A world where everyone is encouraged to fail and beatify their failures by blaming others.
You can’t help but know that the teachers of the Rosenwald school would’ve slapped a kid upside the head for claiming grammar was a microagression. They were suffering macroagressions—lynchings, often deadly segregation, alienation from the general culture—and they overcame them.
Maybe that’s not fair. Rosenwald was a great man, and he did great things. But there’s a distinct break in what he did and where we are right now as a country, and the movie’s nod toward that is to be dedicated to #blacklivesmatter. Somehow it’s hard to believe that he’d be for a movement that promotes the random killing of police officers.
On The Scale:
1. Subject matter: Worthy, historical, and necessary.
2. Technique: Adequate to telling the story. Photos and historians for the earlier stuff, filmed footage where available. Music a mix of classic jazz, ragtime and "It’s A Wonderful World”.
3. Bias: Yes. And it’s the sort of bias you see a lot: The unchallenged assumption among the Left that The Good Guys Are Always On The Left.
They call Rosenwald “progressive” at a time when eugenics was the Great Hope for progressives. And what did he do? Well, he facilitated traditional education, emphasizing practical skills, self reliance and other things that today would probably be called Hebrewsplaining.
Hell, the whole thing was a classic libertarian example of private charity, with zero handouts—even the artists had to produce to get something—working with communities and churches, with the larger government only peripherally involved at best.
A lot of times I suspect the documentaries we see are funded to make sure the Holocaust is never forgotten, nor the history of Israel, and I suspect that this one was funded to try to improve relations between Jews and Blacks, which would be a good thing. Maybe in that context, the last third makes more sense.