The Best Jewish Director You've Never Heard Of

Considering the Unjust Obscurity of Michael Roemer

Camera Obscura: The common thread of all of Michael Roemer’s scripts is a quintessential American theme — family dysfunction.
Harold Shapiro
Camera Obscura: The common thread of all of Michael Roemer’s scripts is a quintessential American theme — family dysfunction.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Published January 31, 2013, issue of February 01, 2013.
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“Nothing But a Man” is politically incorrect because it’s a film about the lives of American black people produced, written, directed and photographed by white men, most of them Jewish — principally, Roemer and his longtime friend and former college classmate Robert M. Young (who went on to garner more of a reputation than Roemer, through such films of his own as “Alambrista!,” “One Trick Pony” and “Dominick and Eugene”). I first saw it in 1964, and I’ve regarded it ever since as one of the first authentic films made about American blacks in the South (even though the film was shot exclusively in New Jersey).

I grew up in Alabama, where the film’s action is set, and even though I’ve had a lifelong aversion to films that misrepresent the South and mangle Southern accents — and despite the fact that, as Roemer has pointed out, all the white characters in the film have Southern accents and all the black characters don’t — the overall level of accurate observation is such that I wasn’t surprised to read that it was Malcolm X’s favorite film. And “The Plot Against Harry” seems no less authentic.

Roemer grew up as a Jew in Berlin, where he spent much of the first 11 years of his life (1928-1938) dodging Nazis, until, half a year after Kristallnacht, he and his sister were packed onto a train bound for England with 300 other Jewish children, and spent the war at a boarding school in Kent. Shortly before he turned 18, he and his sister left on a convoy of armed ships for New York, where they were greeted by their mother, whom they hadn’t seen for six years.

Attending Harvard on a scholarship in 1945, Roemer majored in English, edited a Zionist journal, and, before graduating with honors, made “A Touch of the Times” for $2300, which was probably the first independent feature ever produced at an American university. In an essay in the first volume of his “Film Stories: Screenplays as Story” (The Scarecrow Press, 2001), a collection of his screenplays, he mordantly reports that it was “intended as social satire” and, thanks to a premiere “at a Harvard Square theater on the evening of the Princeton game” that paid back the film’s negative cost, “from a financial point of view, it remains my most successful film.” Life magazine even published a three-page story about it, but characteristically, the film hasn’t been screened many times since 1949.

Many other false starts to Roemer’s career as a filmmaker followed — and here, I think, is where the idea of Roemer knowing too much becomes more pertinent. After several unsuccessful writing assignments, he notes, “I realized that my problem wasn’t incompetence, but an inability to lend myself to a story without spending far more time exploring the facts than the assignments allowed,” which led to him spending seven years on various film crews.


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