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He spent four years making about 100 educational films. In 1962, he was approached by Young to collaborate on an NBC TV documentary about poverty in a Sicilian slum, and it appears that they wound up doing such an effective job that NBC refused to broadcast it. Roemer and Young decided to produce their own next work together — Young would shoot, and Roemer would direct. The result was “Nothing But a Man.”
This film was a critical success, but one that led to a professional impasse. After Roemer and Young purchased an option on Elie Wiesel’s “Dawn,” and accepted a documentary assignment in Israel to further explore making the film, they ultimately decided that it would be impossible. Meanwhile, having subsequently regretted that “Nothing But a Man” tended to neglect humor as a part of black culture, Roemer decided to make a comedy about middle-class urban Jews, thereby launching the research that would yield “The Plot Against Harry.” During this same period, Roemer began teaching at Yale, a job that has sustained him ever since.
Still, Roemer was mortified to discover that “The Plot Against Harry” — a tale about a Jewish gangster in the numbers racket trying and failing to go straight by buying his way into the middle class — was deemed unfit to be released. No one laughed at the screenings; apparently the black and white documentary style as well as the complicated, rather melancholy plot confounded most comic expectations.The subtle social satire, at once devastating and warmly forgiving, didn’t help either.
Two decades later, when Roemer was transferring his films to video to give to his children, the technician he was working with started to laugh at “The Plot Against Harry,” at which point Roemer concluded he might have done something right. He remixed the sound, struck a new print, and submitted the film to both the New York and Toronto film festivals; both accepted it immediately. It went on to screen around the world, and this time people mainly laughed.
But the success plainly came too late to build any career around it. After “Harry,“ Roemer spent two and a half years writing “Stone My Heart,” a powerful script about a brutally dysfunctional family that he’s never been able to shoot, then a script called “Haunted” that he was eventually able to direct for TV in 1984. His well-received TV documentary, “Dying,” about the lives and family relationships of three people facing death, led to “Pilgrim, Farewell,” which he shot (again for TV) in 1982.
The common thread of all these scripts is a quintessential American theme — family dysfunction. Duff (Ivan Dixon), the hero of “Nothing But a Man,” was abandoned by his father (Julius Harris), and has subsequently abandoned his own son. In “Harry,” the protagonist’s hapless efforts to join the middle class are paralleled by his failure to sustain either of his marriages. Roemer has admitted being driven to make “Nothing But a Man” for personal rather than altruistic reasons, and the problem of having an absent father was partially his own. Maybe this is why he reportedly spent hours with Harris on each of his lines, and why more generally he is such a consummate director of actors. Abbey Lincoln in the same film and Martin Priest in both of Roemer’s early features — playing a racist redneck in the first, Harry in the second — are so fine we repeatedly forget that they’re actors. And maybe this is because Roemer is ultimately more interested in life than in movies — a classic commercial liability.
Jonathan Rosenbaum’s most recent book is “Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition” (University of Chicago Press, 2010).