Film Review: Creating a legend around a great man
Author(s): By Jim Lowe
Staff Writer Date: August 27, 2016 Section: Local
MIDDLEBURY — American history is full of unsung heroes who have made a big difference in how we live. One such person is Damon Jerome Keith, an African-American judge, who — against all odds — handed down some of the most important decisions affecting our civil rights. Now 94, Keith is currently a senior judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (Cincinnati).
“Walk with Me: The Trials of Damon J. Keith,” Jesse Nesser’s dimensional and poignant portrait of this quietly great man, opened the second annual Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival Thursday to a sold-out Town Hall Theater.
“Walk with Me” is one of 90 films, complemented by discussions and parties, being presented through Sunday around Middlebury. These films were chosen from some 370 submissions by founder and chairman Lloyd Komesar, a 25-year veteran of the Walt Disney Company now living in Middlebury, and Artistic Director Jay Craven, Barnet filmmaker and teacher.
The grandson of slaves, Keith (born in 1922) is an ideal subject for a film biography as he is little-known yet several of his decisions have been momentous. In the film, Keith explains that his first real interest in civil rights came from his and fellow black soldiers’ mistreatment at the hands of white officers during World War II. That inspired him to go on to college, and earn a law degree. He worked his way through the ranks, first achieving real fame as judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, appointed by President Lyndon M. Johnson, in Keith’s hometown of Detroit.
Nesser, a young filmmaker and graduate of Marlboro College, focuses on some of Keith’s major decisions, how they happened and some of the ramifications. Central are interviews with Keith, but they are surrounded with interviews of people involved, photographs, and powerful news footage from the time. More than a portrait of the man, it is a page in American history.
In 1970, in Davis. v. School District of Pontiac, Inc., Keith ruled that the Pontiac, Michigan school board was responsible for desegregating its schools, resulting in forced busing and some extreme protests. In United States v. Sinclair, the judge ruled that the government had no right wiretap the White Panthers without a warrant, pitting him against President Richard M. Nixon. These and other decisions all survived appeal, underscoring Keith’s greatness.
Intertwining these decisions is the personal story of Keith’s life. Through interviews with his daughters, friends and colleagues, Keith’s life is revealed be consistent with his life’s work. Keith showed a need to make a difference, and do the right thing regardless of the cost — all within the American judicial system.
From a filmmaking point of view, Nesser’s approach is entirely traditional. Although there aren’t any creative risks taken, the quality is consistently high, much like the documentaries seen on PBS. Interestingly, a major backer of this film was Edsel Ford and the Ford Foundation,
A delightful postlude, run during the credits, is a series of photos of Keith taken with some of the greatest people of his time, from Marin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy to Mohammed Ali and Nelson Mandela to Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and many more. Though little-known, Keith man has spent his life in the circles of power.
Only in its second year, the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival is well on its way to becoming Vermont’s most influential film institution. Not only does it provide powerful experiences and entertainment, it plays a major role in developing tomorrow’s filmmakers.