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on a personal note….

This is for those of you who found your way here. It’s a private moment that means a lot to me, and I figure if you find your way here it might mean a lot to you too. I got this message from Nat on my cell phone today, Sept. 17, 2013, after I announced our distribution deal yesterday with First Run Features:

“It’s Nat! Nat Hentoff calling, on Tuesday. I’m just, just — I’m so pleased, and it is very big news that you sent me, about the deal with First Run Features. Wow, whoa, whoa. When you have a chance, I’d like to know more about First Run Features, and how you managed to do that. And from the very beginning, you’ve worked so hard and so well on this documentary. It’s been such a privilege that you thought of focusing on me for the documentary. And at the end of your message, it said, stay tuned for even more good news soon! Pleeease let me know what that good news is as well.

I’ll tell you that [in] my 88th year, you’ve made the future so much more promising, because even when I’m not here, people will know I’m here for a long time to come. And um, I’d like a copy, when you have a chance, of the, of the, of the DVD as the consumer sees it. And then of course there’s the book in the fall. And, and let’s see, is there anything else here? Well, not at the moment. I’m just — it really is a privilege, Mr. Lewis, to be connected with you and to see how you work. So give me a chanc – give me a call when you have a chance….”

A never-before-seen picture, for your pleasure:

nat message

Big News!

Ladies and Gentleman: So very happy to announce that we have signed a North American distribution deal with First Run Features, the respected New York-based independent distributor. This announcement means that all our fans in the U.S. and Canada will be able to see the film in theaters, on television or elsewhere in your homes sometime in the next year. If you know a theater where you’d like to see the film run in your city, please let the theater know to get in touch with First Run, or let us know and we will reach out to them. Stay tuned for even more good news soon!

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Vintage Hentoff Video

Some background: Back in the mid-1960s, Nat Hentoff hosted a TV program on the arts on a local station in New York City. Unfortunately, the station didn’t save any of the tapes. But we found one episode during the research for “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step.” Hentoff spent the entire half hour on the work of Gordon Parks, the famous Life magazine photographer who went on to a career in Hollywood as director of “Shaft” and other films. In this brief excerpt, the two men discuss Malcolm X, whom they both knew personally. The broadcast took place on February 22, 1966 — one year and one day after Malcolm’s assassination.

Boston Jazz

Wally’s bills itself as the oldest continuously running jazz club in the United States; it has hosted shows by Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker and many, many more. In Boston’s South End, around the corner from the site of the old Savoy Cafe where Hentoff hung out as a teenager and young adult, Wally’s was packed yesterday afternoon for a performance by a jazz orchestra from a high school in upstate Batavia, New York. W.E.B. Du Bois, MLK Jr. and Malcolm Little reputedly all hung out there in their Boston years. Frank Poindexter, who runs the joint with his two brothers, said he likes to support young musicians because without them the music has no future. Frank and his mother, Elynor Walcott (daughter of the founder) helped us with some research for the film a few years ago, so I stopped by to say thanks. Frank said he is excited to see the film come out and will try to make it to the screening @IFFBoston tomorrow night!

tickets: http://bit.ly/10O5A7h

Wally's Cafe, South End

 

Press Criticism

Here’s an interesting column by Jack Shafer on press crticism through the years. It mentions Alexander Cockburn’s “Press Clips” column in The Village Voice — always a spicy read, to be sure, although for coverage of the New York City press, I preferred Geoffrey Stokes.

Few people realize that Nat Hentoff wrote the first regular column of press criticism in the Voice. As we report in the film, it started in 1958; it was originally called “Second Chorus,” and Hentoff carried on through most of the 1960s.

Here’s a Hentoff column from 1960 that excoriates The New York Times for retracting an advertisement that solicited funds for the legal defense of Martin Luther King Jr. because of a few inaccuracies.

Hentoff was one of the signatories on the ad.

Unfortunately — or perhaps fortunately — for the Times, its apparent cave-in didn’t work: The paper was sued for libel anyway, by L.B. Sullivan, the police commissioner in Montgomery, Alabama. The resulting decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Times v. Sullivan became a landmark in First Amendment law, setting a tough new standard for public officials to prove libel claims against the press.

The Times became a hero for the cause of freedom of the press. But not before Hentoff had his say.

World Premier

The Pleasures of Being Out of Step premiered to a full house at the Full Frame Documentary Festival in Durham, N.C. last night. As a first-time director, it was a new experience to sit in a darkened room with paying customers to watch the film. We sold over 300 tickets and I’m happy to report the film was warmly received. The audience laughed at all the right spots and even laughed at some of the more subtle moments of humor. I saw one woman wrap her arm around her companion and give him a squeeze during a music sequence, and there was appropriate quiet during some of the heavier twists in the story. The festival has a reputation for attracting an audience of serious filmgoers, and it showed in the 20-minute Q&A session that followed, where they asked friendly but probing questions about some of the decisions I made in making the film, and about  some of the historical material we uncovered.  Here are some pictures:

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I was happy and honored to have editor Sam Pollard attend the screening. Pleasures was one on of three films in the festival that had Sam’s name on it — surely a record! It was one of the great experiences of the project to work with such an accomplished editor and all-round great human being.

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All photos by Juliet A. Lewis

First Screening for Hentoffs

A big milestone today — we showed Pleasures to Nat Hentoff and his family for the first time. The private screening took place at the Anthology Film Archives, on Second Avenue and 2nd Street in Greenwich Village, near where he lives.

In the five years it took to make the film, Hentoff gave us full access to himself, his family and his work. He never once tried to tell me who to talk to, what questions to ask or what to say. He never asked to approve anything we did, nor did he express any disapproval.

He never saw a single frame of the film. Until today.

Before we started, I told him how much I appreciated his trust. I told him I didn’t think his attitude had anything to do with me, since he didn’t know me from a hole in the wall when we started. I told him I thought it had more to do with his respect for journalism itself.

Which is one of the reasons I wanted to make the film in the first place.

I’m happy to say he liked the film.

Here are some pictures from our discussion after the screening:

Nat Hentoff Makes  A Point in post-screening discussion.

 

Director David L. Lewis taking questions from Hentoff and his family.

 

Nat Hentoff contemplates a film about his life after the first screening.

 

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First Write-Up

We head to the premier at the Full Frame festival in Durham one week from today, and we have our first write-up:

“Lewis’ wonderful, and, yes, almost improvisational, documentary shows us how the two [jazz and the First Amendment] are inseparably linked in the work and mind of Hentoff.”

– By Cliff Bellamy in the Durham Herald-Sun

Anthony Lewis, RIP

Often, as I researched the film, questions came up about who else in journalism was doing the kind of work Nat did in the latter half of the 20th century, focused on civil liberties, the law and the Constitution. Always and inevitably, the conversation turned to Anthony Lewis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and columnist for the New York Times, who died yesterday at the age of 85.

Aryeh Neier, the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union who is interviewed in the film, said Lewis was “the only other writer dealing with civil liberties as regularly” in those days. So did Floyd Abrams, the noted first amendment attorney.

Lewis had a different approach than Hentoff to the First Amendment. Hentoff is more of an absolutist, while Lewis said he recognized some limitations on speech. I called Nat this morning and asked him about Lewis’ passing.

“He was a major force and influence on me,” Hentoff said. “He did what has to be done repeatedly in this country, and that’s to awaken readers to the fact that there is a Constitution and they should know about it.

“He was lucid; he had a wonderful sense of narrative. One of Anthony Lewis’ main contributions was making the Constitution come alive in case after case. [His readers] really learned a lot more than just about the case. He had this controlled passion for the true meaning of Americanism, which is that we are the government. We are a self-governing nation. That is a major contribution.

“He was not an absolutist [on the First Amendment], but I’m not either, actually. I may sound like it, but I realize that absolutism leads to a lack of knowledge about reality.

“In the schools — and I talked to Anthony Lewis about this from time to time — there’s far less concentration on American history and on that part of American history that is who we are. For much of his life Anthony Lewis was getting — more than the Bill of Rights, but especially the Bill of Rights — into the lives of a lot of Americans. And that was a hell of a contribution.”

 

p.s., I am no relation to Lewis, but I did cross paths with his son — also named David, to the amusement of us both — during my sojourns in broadcast news.