By Umut Newbury
August 6, 2008
Less than three months from a historic presidential election comes an extremely timely documentary from Docurama Films. The Robert Drew Kennedy Films Collection, including Primary, filmed in 1960, Crisis, filmed in 1963, and Faces of November, filmed in 1964, is a crucial trilogy for students of history and political junkies everywhere.
History repeats itself and the resemblances of this year’s presidential race, or more accurately, of one candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, to the Kennedys, both JFK and RFK, have already been underscored earlier in the year. Primary only makes this more evident, as it follows John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey during the Wisconsin primary election. The similarities are eerie. Humphrey talks to farmers and older folks. Though he has a populist message similar to that of John Edwards in this year’s campaign, the size of his crowds resembles more that of John McCain’s. Then we see images of Kennedy that are all too familiar: Large crowds, mostly young people, mostly young girls, cheering, running down the streets to meet the candidate. Just like with Obama, JFK as a candidate is more like a celebrity; everybody wants to shake his hand, everybody wants an autograph. Humphrey tells the farm folk, “Fortune and Life magazine don’t give a hoot about your life,” in an effort to undermine JFK’s celebrity status. Isn’t that what John McCain was echoing when he ran the recent attack ad “Celeb,” asking the question about Obama, “Sure, he is a celebrity, but is he ready to lead?”
Kennedy’s strength in Wisconsin, as Primary shows, is in the heavily populated areas, mostly the big cities. Fast-forward to 2008, Obama’s strengths are the same. Then, of course, there are shots of the first great First Lady, Jackie Kennedy. She is quiet and graceful, the symbol of the good, supportive wife of the 1950s and 1960s, much like the character Betty Draper in AMC’s Mad Men. The viewer cannot help but think of Michelle Obama. If only Mrs. Obama stayed quiet and doting like Jackie Kennedy, she would be beloved as well. But this is 2008 and Mrs. Obama is the symbol of the 21st century wife: strong, independent, smart, but never timid.
Primary’s closing shots are from the campaign headquarters where we see JFK chain-smoking his H. Upmann petite cigars and admitting that he did indeed tell a reporter, “if lost here, I’d find it extremely difficult to be nominated.” Luckily for him, the newspapers never had a chance to use that line against him to get him to drop out of the race. As Humphrey leaves his headquarters quietly at the end of the evening, it is evident the candidate from the neighboring Minnesota has lost the election to the “Catholic elitist from the East.”
As fascinating as Primary is with the déjà vu moments, the next film of the historic three-film collection simply blows it out of the water. Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment has some of the most incredible behind the scenes White House footage ever seen on film. The footage starts on June 10, 1963, the day before the first two African-American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, would try to enroll for summer classes at the University of Alabama. Alabama is the last state in the nation to allow integration and the state’s infamous Governor George Wallace threatens to stand between the students and their education.
The film opens with candid shots from inside the home of Bobby Kennedy, the Attorney General. It’s a serene breakfast scene with the Kennedy children and the parents getting ready for their day in McLean, Virginia. At the Governor’s Mansion in Montgomery, the scene is a direct contrast. We see the Wallace children being cared for by the African-American nanny. The governor quickly leaves for the important work of keeping the university free of “negroes.” He says he sees segregation as a moral issue: “If I believed it was wrong, it’d be sin, but separation is good for the negro citizen.”
Back in Washington D.C., Bobby Kennedy decides to send down his deputy, Nicholas Katzenbach to handle the situation in Montgomery and urges his brother to make a televised speech to the nation about the issue. JFK seems hesitant, but regardless, a speech will be prepared. From there Crisis begins to chronicle the intricate political dance that Bobby Kennedy orchestrates with his brother in order to avoid major riots like the ones that happened in Oxford, Miss., after integration. It’s a complicated task that involves the state troops, the federal troops, Wallace and the students. All Wallace cares about is keeping the “beautiful university peaceful and serene.” He declares to the documentary makers: “No negro is embarrassed, he knows what college and café to go.” Ironically while talking with the NAACP, Malone reveals that she did indeed go to an African-American college only to see it become unaccredited. JFK is worried about the country’s global image and its moral credibility. But it is RFK that ultimately pulls off this event without a hitch. He avoids sending armed troops; only his deputy Katzenbach goes along with the students. When Wallace interferes with their entry to the enrollment building, Katzenbach directs the students to their dorms, following RFK’s advice. The students enroll later without the fanfare. It’s a brilliant production that satisfies everybody and harms no one. Wallace gets to make his speech against integration and preserve his popularity with the white folk in Alabama, JFK gets to make a speech on TV about America moving forward morally and the students get to go on with their college life. The hero behind the scenes is definitely the younger Kennedy.
After Crisis reminds the viewers what the true legacy of the Kennedy presidency was, the trilogy’s closing episode, The Faces of November, solemnly walks us through the JFK funeral in Washington. It’s an elegant piece of film documenting one of the hardest human emotions to observe. It provides a powerful coda to the trilogy, in that we see the love and admiration for the young candidate in 1960 as captured in Primary was not shallow. This country’s people saw in Kennedy a symbol of a better America, a more perfect union. They loved him because he represented not only the best possibility of the country but of their very own selves. And when he was slain, they knew all too well, that side had vanished with him. The Robert Drew Kennedy Films Collection is a condensed yet dazzling reminder of one of the most legendary American presidencies. It is precisely what people should revisit as we approach the most historic presidency since.
The Robert Drew Kennedy Films Collection
Primary, Crisis & Faces of November
2008 Docurama Films
117 minutes plus extras