A large part of my middle school and early high school social studies classes were devoted to analyzing political cartoons or simplistic cartoons that bear a large commentary on the, at that time, current world of politics. Most of which, from what I can remember, looked like an illustration of Herbert "Herblock" Block, the prominent cartoon editorialist for The Washington Post for over fifty years and likely were. My teachers placed an enormous emphasize on these single-frame strips because not only did they evoke humor and artistic simplicity, but were incredibly valuable if taken and analyzed from a symbolic viewpoint, as they detailed the opinions of their writers in an almost wordless fashion.
Herblock - The Black & The White is a documentary that explores the life and legacy of Herblock in a way that analyzes him as a political pundit and a talented cartoonist. Early on, a gaggle of politically-active men and women talk about how many breakfasts in Washington were ruined because of the cartoons Herblock would publish in The Washington Post, which ranged from the cute and innocuous to the downright opinionated and quietly blatant. Through over fifty years of employment with The Post, Herblock penned a countless amount of political cartoons that attacked the hypocrisy, the bigotry, the lobbying, the unfair treatment, and the completely benign events that would plague the political world. Herblock was employed during many tumultuous times, ranging from the sixties, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, the Cold War, American foreign policy controversy, and had his final stint during the Clinton years and just a tiny section of the Bush years before dying in late 2001.
The first half of the film greatly concerns his work and examines several cartoons one-by-one, from his intense and unique views on Joe McCarthy, at the time, illustrating blunt comics depicting a deeply unsure and grotesque individual, along with his intense criticism of both Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton (who he was granted a prestigious award by), while the second half examines him as a person and where he stands on the left-wing/right-wing/centrist scale. During the documentary Alan Mandell portrays Herblock, discussing the man's opinions and the man's ideas in a strange way. He gives those unfamiliar with Herblock mild confusion since Herblock has been dead for thirteen years now and we're seeing a man who heavily resembles Herblock talking as if he is the person in a way a biopic would, not a documentary. We aren't told until the first frame of the credits that Mandell is playing Herblock, so the interview scenes with "Herblock" only mystify audience members.
I watched Herblock - The Black & The White with a good friend of mine and talked a lot during the film about my personal opinions, the impact and message brought forth by political cartoons, and how Herblock would greatly influence a time when everything in politics, regardless of how expensive or morally-ambiguous something is is relatively fair-game in the political world today. It was one of the first times in recent memory where I was an active talker with somebody during a film, particularly because director Michael Stevens practically encourages discussion with the questions he asks and the way he drives the discussion amongst numerous interviewees. The film would be a brilliant inclusion in college, even high school, level journalism classes that teach the value of cartoonists in the world today and how their work shouldn't be viewed as cheap and childish.
One of my personal favorite Herblock pictures involves the era when the United States' foreign policy began putting heavy emphasis on the value of oil. One particularly strip shows the United States, represented as a traditional man, with his head buried in the sand and his bottom-half sticking up in the air with a noticeable footprint in his rear-end. Behind him stand an angry mob of people, each representing specific countries and a nearby sign that reads "Gently please." Just think if that footprint hadn't been there.
Not to mention, it's also interesting to note that Herblock lived through the sixties, seventies, and eighties, decades that brought immense social change and depicted an enormous generation gap between the young and the old, unforeseeable to generations past. It was also during the time where American exceptionalism got grossly out of hand, with many people adopting a "love it or leave it" kind of attitude and believed America couldn't do no wrong and would never do no wrong. It was a time when many people, whether they admit or not, simply couldn't accept reality and were blind to America's inevitable flaws, treating it as some force that could not be criticized simply because it was their homeland. Such an ignorantly nationalistic mindset sickens me and this is coming from someone who is a firm believer that you should love your country and be proud of where you came from. Herblock believed that you should critique it and see its flaws as a whole because you love it rather than blindly defend every decision simply because you think we're an impenetrable force.
Having said all that, Herblock - The Black & The White may be a little too long for its own good. At ninety-five minutes, I am saying the exact opposite of what I usually say about documentaries and that this one would've worked better as a fifty-minute exercise. After a while, it feels we're running a track in circles and arriving at the same point even though we began on a different one. However, this is still a strong piece of documentary cinema that again profiles a person many of us may need to do more research on. Start searching.
NOTE: Herblock - The Black & The White will air throughout the end of January and throughout February on the HBO network.
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