Llewellyn Smith’s documentary, which was originally broadcast on PBS, focuses on the controversial sociological work of Melville J. Herskovits (1895-1963), whose research into African culture and its connections to African-American society created the foundation for academia’s approach to black studies.
In 1948, Herskovits founded the African studies program at Northwestern University, the first of its kind. His books, most notably the 1941 “The Myth of the Negro Past,” challenged the then-popular racist notions of non-existent or painfully primitive cultural development among people of color. While Herskovits’ work opened the debate on questions relating to racial identity – the Black Panthers would later cite his work as a foundation of their movement – Herskovits clouded the impact of his research and teaching in curious and often rancorous dealings with African-American scholars that questioned his motives and theories, most notably W.E.B. DuBois and E. Franklin Frazier.
The film is curiously obsessed with the notion that Herskovits, the son of immigrant Austrian Jews, became famous as the leader in establishing black studies within U.S. academia. Admittedly, this was more by default than design – the racism of the era prevented African-Americans from gaining prestigious teaching responsibilities at major colleges and universities, and research offered by African-American scholars through the historically black colleges and universities were routinely ignored by their white peers.
The film tries to define a bond of victimhood between Herskovits and African-Americans of the Jim Crow years by noting that Herskovits faced prejudice through anti-Semitic comments from his supposedly learned academic peers. The film endlessly questions whether this shaped the focus of his studies, though a conclusive answer is never truly confirmed. Actually, the question may be irrelevant: Herskovits was once an aspiring rabbi, but he abandoned Judaism after World War I military service, so the film’s harping on his religion makes little sense.
Strangely, the film brushes over Herskovits’ political affiliations, which came back to haunt him in the early 1960s when he was denied security clearance for a Kennedy Administration post due to alleged participate in red-tinged organizations. Herskovits reportedly warned his African studies classes to avoid involvement in political movements, but it is unclear why he never practiced what he preached.
As for appreciating Herskovits’ career output, the presentation here is mixed. There is a selection of clips from Herskovits’ anthropological films taken during trips through Africa and the Caribbean, but very little of his writing his quoted. Thus, this portrait of his scholarship comes across like a half-told story.