Friday, March 4: Television/Father
Jesse Hall was the site of the first film Jen and I saw together this year, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. It was lighter fare than we are accustomed to seeing during the festival, but you really have to have about 20% on your schedule that aren’t overly demanding on your sensibilities, to maintain your sanity. Enter the father of the TV sitcom, Norman Lear.
Lear was the first to bring prejudice into our television entertainment, and make fun of it, beginning with Archie Bunker and All in the Family. He first brought a black family to TV with Good Times, but the show fell apart after internal disagreements and claims that white Americans were forming an opinion of blacks based too much on Jimmie Walker saying “Dy-no-mite,” and other “buffoonery,” as Esther Rolle called it. A visit to Lear by the Black Panthers pointed out that Good Times also reinforced the idea of blacks living in poverty, which led to the moving on up of George Jefferson, in The Jeffersons. At 93, Lear is about to premier a Netflix series, One Day at a Time, a redo of the classic sitcom featuring a Cuban-American family.
Lear has almost ceaselessly brought controversial subjects and situations to TV, despite death threats and other intimidation from all directions. His life was shaped in no small way by the father that disappeared from his life when he was nine years old, but his inner child remains very active today, personified in the film by a Fedora-wearing boy.
Just Another Version of You, a phrase taken from a bumper sticker on Lear’s car, highlights his life as an activist. He is the founder of People for the American Way, and once purchased an original publishing of the Declaration of Independence, to tour it around the country for all to see. He currently has a campaign to fight back against the hateful speech of the leading Republican presidential candidate, and I couldn’t help but think about Lear’s take on the lack of diversity in Hollywood films today. As director Ewing spoke on stage after the film, with the lights up in the auditorium, I also found myself wondering what he would think of the make-up of the audience I was a part of, as I couldn’t see a single person of color. The film-festival, in general, tends to be a very Caucasian event, and True/False is a prime example.
But Lear has sought to bring people of all varieties together through the television medium, trying to show that we are all just another version of each other. Ewing and Grady’s biopic brings a man who has seemed larger than life to the big screen, making him larger still. But throughout the story, you understand that he is just another guy. A boy.