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posted: 9/3/2015 5:00 AM

'Rosenwald' doc will reaffirm your faith in the American dream

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  • Video: "Rosenwald" trailer

  • Sears & Roebuck president J.R. Rosenwald accompanies writer Booker T. Washington to the Tuskegee Institute in the documentary "Rosenwald."

    Sears & Roebuck president J.R. Rosenwald accompanies writer Booker T. Washington to the Tuskegee Institute in the documentary "Rosenwald."

 
 

The superbly wrought documentary "Rosenwald" should be mandatory viewing for all Illinois residents, especially Chicagoans. It's the only documentary I've ever seen that could legitimately be declared "the feel-good movie of the year!"

A big chunk of "Rosenwald" reports the story of how the son of a Jewish peddler became the owner of the vast Sears and Roebuck empire in Chicago, and how he invested his vast fortunes not in stocks, bonds or foreign companies, but in his own nation's future.

The last part of "Rosenwald" steps away from a straight biography and delves into the social, economic, political, educational and cultural ripple effects of this man's expansive, committed philanthropy.

If this didn't really happen, you might think the story was some fabricated Santa Claus fantasy.

Filmmaker Aviva Kempner profiles high school dropout Julius Rosenwald, who, influenced by writer Booker T. Washington, used his vast resources as president of Sears to fulfill his Jewish beliefs of tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (repairing the world) to improve life.

He made the connection that African Americans in the south were living under some of the same conditions as Jews in Europe had been. So, he set out to equalize the playing fields of everyday life.

During the Jim Crow South, he built more than 5,300 schools. He awarded grants to hundreds and hundreds of African American intellectuals and artists. (Woody Guthrie, too!) And that's just the tip of the proverbial philanthropic iceberg.

The German-born Kempner -- most known for her doc "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" -- constructs a remarkably engaging report filled with archival footage, strong images, comic relief (especially a clip from the movie "The Music Man") but without shying away from the darker moments in which the KKK burned down many of Rosenwald's schools.

"Rosenwald" will reaffirm your faith in capitalism, compassion, community, diversity, social justice and the American dream.

When does a film critic ever get to write a sentence like that?

"Rosenwald" opens at the Century Centre in Chicago and the Highland Park Renaissance Place. Not rated. 100 minutes. ★ ★ ★ ★

• Dann Gire's Reel Life column runs Friday in Time out!

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