Directors: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
He’s 93 and sharp as anything – and what a life of impact – Norman Lear is one of the greatest minds to have ever worked in television. A showrunner for so many big-deal TV shows in America in the 1970s he is credited with putting “real people” on television, creating “real characters”.
And so this documentary portrait/tribute celebrates so much of that, aiming more for impact and legacy than a detailed roll-call. We get to see some of the crucial snippets from Maude and The Jeffersons and of course Archie Bunker from All In The Family but there are other shows that are largely ignored. Such was Lear’s talent and push and drive and skill that he juggled several shows at once and the spinoffs created further spinoffs – a clever thread of work to absorb.
We get to see and hear about details from his personal life and the overlap between work and play. Lear is in a reflective period having given several lengthy podcast interviews to plug a recently released memoir.
But it never feels like (just) a victory lap. The work feels startlingly vital – well the cherry-picked bits anyway.
Lear’s big conversation was around race and bigotry and the ugliness of humanity, the realness, the rawness; his was a series of shows that reflected the contrasting attitudes in the wake of the Civil Rights era. Archie Bunker was described as a lovable bigot. But what was lovable about him? The fact that he was in a comedy? Actually he was bigotry-as-satire, there wasn’t a lot to love – and certainly the eyes and ears of today pick up what a sad loser he was, crippled by the love, fear and instruction of his previous generation.
It’s weighty stuff for TV. And Lear was so masterful in the way he created these shows – his eureka moment seemingly coming from time spent in England, adapting Steptoe And Son into Sanford And Son. Making All In The Family the must-watch show that was part of the death of the 1960s and the cold, hard truth of the 1970s.
He’s credited, also, via The Jeffersons specifically, with putting black characters front and centre, making jobs therefore for black actors. Well before we had The Cosby Show or Fresh Prince…just as often as Lear’s shows satirised racism – and/or showed the ugliness of it – they are praised for celebrating race and diversity. But here I am, 40 years on, a white guy, and this is the story I understand. We don’t get to know much about how Lear’s comments on race/racism were perceived by the black actors or viewers. There is a clip of Esther Rolle from the show Good Times – one of the spinoffs from a spinoff – where she is unhappy with the JJ character’s catchphrase, “Dy-no-mite!” It ruined the show, as she tells it, it was “a way of putting us all down”.
So there’s that. Valid. Spot on, I should think. But there’s no real back-up, and we don’t get Lear’s thoughts on that in defence. We just get the images, the words, the views into his worlds.
That is the non-judging way of the documentary these filmmakers practice (we saw that so stunningly, effectively in Jesus Camp) but it’s hard to know really how Lear was perceived. Amy Poehler is near breathless in appreciation sitting next to Lear at the start of the film, saying she named her child Archie and that there’s no greater person in American TV than Lear. Later on Jon Stewart, in an interview for The Daily Show (one of so many plugging Lear’s aforementioned memoir) says, “you raised me”. But we don’t get the black perspective on that. Is it white history and perspective telling us that Lear’s racially charged/pointed work was powerful and empowering? Maybe it was not appreciated at all.
At any rate this is a great documentary of a great man who has lead a great life. He’s warm, candid, fascinating. And his work stands up as influential and powerful to this day.
Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You is part of this year’s Documentary Edge Festival in New Zealand. The festival’s films screen in Wellington May 4-5, 2016 and in Auckland May 18-29, 2016.