Now 89, Nat Hentoff is the very definition of a living anachronism. An East Coast Jew who came of age during the postwar era, he earned his early journalistic reputation for his astute jazz criticism in Downbeat magazine. Later he began writing political commentary for the then-nascent Village Voice, from which he was unceremoniously booted in 2008 when the paper shifted its focus to the less-contemplative mode of digital journalism. As is made clear in David L. Lewis’ probing documentary, filled with archival interviews, jazz performances, and talking heads, Hentoff was always an iconoclast—a man willing to challenge the dominant narratives (whether political or musical), often redefining them in the process.
In an early interview, the young, forever-bearded Hentoff disabuses his interlocutor of the jazz mythology perpetuated by the Beat writers of the time. He argues that the great artists of the age—Charlie Byrd, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, et al.—were not wild men pulling genius from the ether, but studied practitioners birthing a new art form. That appreciation, and his eloquence in expressing it, earned Hentoff respect from the many African-American musicians who viewed him as one of the few white men they could converse with. As a result, Hentoff was employed to write liner notes for some of the era’s great albums, almost single-handedly turning that form into its own literary category. Read by narrator Andre Braugher (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), those notes reveal Hentoff’s genius and give the doc its poetic heart.
But his genius is more complicated than that, and Lewis isn’t shy about delving into the more controversial aspects of Hentoff’s character. At the staunchly liberal Voice, his unwavering First Amendment views famously set him in conflict with readers and editors, particularly when defending Chicago Nazis’ right to parade in Skokie, Illinois, in 1977. As we see here, some of his acolytes were persuaded. Others were simply offended. This polarization continued as Hentoff became more of a libertarian and pro-life absolutist. "You just print bullshit," former Voice editor Karen Durbin recalls telling him, "and it’s anti-woman."
It would be impossible to profile this confounding writer without this unvarnished approach, and thankfully Lewis pulls no punches. What we are left with is not the hagiography of a hallowed writer, but a complex story of a thinking man who eschewed the prevailing ideology for his own sense of truth, no matter how unpopular. Like I said, an anachronism. Runs Fri., July 25–Thurs., July 31 at Grand Illusion. Not rated. 86 minutes.