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Documentaries about figures who revolutionize their fields are rarely as groundbreaking as their subjects. Too often, the filmmakers let themselves be confined by convention: a chronological retelling of their subject’s life, talking heads to explain cultural context, and often a touching, introspective interview with the subjects themselves. Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You also sticks to this formula, but in this case, the cliches are appropriate. Lear was a trailblazing artist, but his genius was that he put his radical politics into the most conventional of forms, challenging his audience like they never had been before—and since.
If you were conscious in the 1970s, you know Norman Lear. At one point in that decade, six of the top 10 shows on television were either created or developed by him: All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and Sanford and Son. The documentary examines several of these shows with an eye for Lear’s success in pushing the political boundaries of television. All in the Family depicted a pitched battle between the post-war generation and the counterculture. While it was immediately recognized for its provocative politics, the documentary hones in on its humanity, especially the honest and hilarious performance by Carroll O’Connor at its core. Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You is worth the price of admission for the clips from All in the Family alone.
Co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady trot out some famous faces to add a little sizzle and lend credence to claims of Lear’s tremendous legacy: Amy Poehler, George Clooney, Jon Stewart, and Russell Simmons all claim Lear as an influence. But Lear cuts such a magnetic on-screen presence that those mega-stars seem like second-generation copies of a true original. Even at 93 (and still working), Lear is agile, both physically and mentally, and he is equally comfortable cracking jokes and revealing deep sadness and regret.
Perhaps most relevant to our current political era was his determination to advance national discussions on race. According to Lear, Good Times was the first successful depiction of black Americans on television. It was an enormous hit, but he received criticism from within the black community—including a surprise visit from the Black Panthers—that the show reinforced stereotypes by highlighting only those black people who were economically struggling. They didn’t want Jimmie “Dyn-o-mite” Walker to be the face of black America. Lear listened and responded with The Jeffersons, about a rich black family who is perpetually mistaken for being poor.
It’s this ability to listen that separates Lear from most politically minded artists, especially those working in today’s era of walled-off partisanship. For All in the Family, Lear crafted a central character representing many positions that he himself abhorred. It’s like a government choosing the losing candidate to run a program he or she opposed. Lear forced himself to truly understand Archie and all of his backwards, bigoted positions, and in doing so, created a complex character that Americans could empathize with, even if they disagreed. Lear refused to dehumanize his political enemies. It’s a position that is sadly rare these days. How lucky we are that Lear, in his tenth decade of life, hasn’t given up yet.
Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You opens Friday at Landmark Bethesda Row.