This engaging documentary ranks in the same Oscar category as last year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Free Solo and RBG.
Given the unsettling nature of American politics today, it is wise to explore significant moments of our immediate past. Director Patrick Creadon’s Hesburgh accomplishes that goal with this superb documentary that explores Theodore Hesburgh’s 35 years as president of Notre Dame and his dedication to elevating the life of average people. He employed both booze and fishing as inventive mechanisms to reach a compromise with both friends and opponents.
To begin with, Reverend Hesburgh was a Catholic priest who brought dignity to a religion that has become embroiled in scandal and controversy. In the process, he served as counsel to presidents ranging from Eisenhower to Johnson and advised Pope Paul VI with the reforms embraced by Vatican II. Ironically, despite the fact that his service to the public took him away from Notre Dame close to 50% of the time, he still was able to raise the reputation of the university by expanding both its endowments as well as the number of students, including females, attending class.
While enormously entertaining, this film serves as an educational tool by exploring Hesburgh’s accomplishments. Though he served on many national boards, which included the Rockefeller Foundation, none was more important than the leadership he displayed that resulted in President Johnson signing both the historic Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in 1964-1965. Reverend Hesburgh had served on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission since being appointed by President Eisenhower and he championed the cause of African Americans living in the deep South who suffered horrific discrimination. In that regard, it is worth remembering this famous Hesburgh quote:
“The melting pot failed to function in one crucial area. Religions and nationalities, however different, generally learn to live together, even to grow together in America. But color was something else. The blacks, who did not come here willingly, are now, more than a century after emancipation by Lincoln still suffering a host of slave-like inequalities.”
While the film demonstrates Reverend Hesburgh’s incredible strengths, it does not dodge his mistakes. With Nixon president and Vietnam War protests taking place on nearly every major college campus in the late 1960s, Hesburgh foolishly imposed a program at Notre Dame where any protestor that failed to disburse in 15 minutes would be subject to action that could result in their expulsion from the university. In doing so, Hesburgh ignored the tragedy that took place at Kent State while receiving congratulations from a President whose policies he strongly opposed.
Nonetheless, the thing that I personally will remember most about the documentary is Reverend Hesburgh’s decision to attend a speech by Martin Luther King in Chicago in 1968 where they ended up holding hands with others as they sang We Shall Overcome. He did so despite facing threats to his safety, and his courage should never be forgotten.
He was truly a man for all seasons.