Film: Herblock: The Black & The White
Director: Michael Stevens
Writers: Sara Lukinson, Michael Stevens
Studio: Stevens Company
Last Night I had the distinct pleasure of attending a gala screening of Herblock: The Black & The White at the Newseum in Washington, DC. This was the first film of AFI Docs for me, and I was waiting with a whole lot of anticipation. This was a very special moment for myself as a journalist, not only because it was the first screening I’d ever been invited to of this magnitude, but also because of what the subject matter was of this film. Herbert Block is about one of the most famous political cartoonists ever, and this film was both a tribute and study of his work, his life, and the effects he had on journalism as a whole. I was honored to attend such an event, and I could not have been more pleased with seeing such a wonderful film for my first night of AFI Docs.
First let us start with an overview of what the film covers. Herblock is very much a character study of the late Herbert Block and his political cartoons that graced the Washington Post for 55 years. The film delves into the intricacies of his work, why his drawings were so important, and the power Herbert Block held with his pen. This film covers the entirety of Herbert Block’s life, from his beginnings to his death in 2001. The material that Herblock covered was quite expansive (due to it being his entire life), but the film kept moving with relative ease. With profile documentaries, sometimes directors can get caught up in telling every single little detail about the subject. While the run time of the film is a 95 minutes long, director Michael Stevens manages to pack in lots of information without anything feeling unnecessary. By the end of Herblock, you knew who he was as a person. You understood his intricacies, his love of cartoons, his love of politics, and his need to hold politicians and public servants to a higher standard.
Herblock had a lot of different filmmaking techniques going on throughout the story. When the director introduced the film before the screening, he talked about how the production had a hard time figuring out how to integrate 4×3 sized cartoons onto a 16×9 aspect ratio film. As a young filmmaker myself, I became immediately curious to see how all of the different cartoons and drawings made their way onto the big screen. I am pleased to say that the editor did a phenomenal job of bringing the cartoons to life on the screen. One technique I was not so sure of was Herblock’s use of live-action recreations of Herbert Block’s life events, including an actor doing an interview with the camera in the likeness of Block. Admittedly, this ‘interview’ threw me off a bit at the beginning, because I frankly wasn’t sure if this was actually Herbert Block or not. While I was well aware of the subject’s cartoons and how important and beautiful they were, I knew relatively nothing about his life, including if he was alive or dead. I know this probably dates me as a writer, but alas, this is true. While at the end of the film we are clarified that the fake interview comes from excerpts of Herbert Block’s speeches and writings, as someone who didn’t know much about the character I found this to be a little bit confusing, especially when there were other interviews going on as well. Speaking of which, Herblock chose a lot of really great personalities to attest to his importance as a cartoonist, and I think these insights made a world of a difference in the overall success of the film. This could have very much been a very dry and boring film that would have been better suited for daytime television, but using the tons of different filmmaking techniques at their disposal, the filmmakers made this an engaging, enjoyable experience.
Over the past few months, as a journalist I have found myself a bit discouraged. As the face of the web continues to grow and develop, the face of journalism is morphing as well. In the past, journalism was first and foremost about quality writing and bringing the full story to the people, with speediness being of second tier importance. In today’s age of Twitter and other social media, speed has seemed to etch out quality and focused writing as what is important in news today. I’m not a fan of this journalistic model. It’s lazy, boring, and gives me nothing substantial to learn more about the context of the situation. Seeing Herblock and learning of the cartoonist’s commitment to crafting hard-hitting, thought out, and poignant political cartoons made me excited about my future as a journalist. I am under the strict notion that if a documentary doesn’t make you feel something or somewhat empowered when the lights come up, it did not do its job. Herblock not only brought such an important figure to life on screen again for me to learn about, but it also inspired me to continue on with my journey as a journalist, and not to fall victim to the increasing trend of fast journalism. Herbert Block is one of the most important journalists of our time, and this film and his life’s work is a testament that great journalism isn’t just reporting the news, but having something to say.
Written By Tyler Osborne (Follow him on Twitter for up to date information on his time at AFI Docs)