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Telling the Truth: A Tribute to Cinematographer & Humanitarian Haskell Wexler

The acclaimed cinematographer and humanitarian, Haskell Wexler, died at the age of 93 on December 27. Right up until his death, he worked on films which stood for peace and justice and championed marginalized voices.

Wexler, a Chicagoan, was well-known for his work on the counterculture classic, “Medium Cool,” but his impressive career, which spanned seven decades, contains other remarkable films. He was also outspoken and challenged the imperial actions of the U.S. government, even as he maintained his celebrity status in Hollywood.

After journalist James Foley was executed by ISIS militants in 2014, “Democracy Now!” featured Wexler, who shared an interview with with Foley that he recorded recorded in 2012 during protests against a NATO summit in Chicago for his film, “Four Days in Chicago.” Foley helped shoot part of the film because he was interested in the veterans who had joined the Occupy movement.

Wexler wrote, “For the President [Obama] to use Jim’s name and other journalists as reason to pursue the stated military policy to ‘degrade and destroy the Islamic State so that it is no longer a threat’ is an insult to the memory of James Foley and to the intelligence of the American people.” He was deeply upset that Obama used Foley as the “poster boy for more violence.”

On “Democracy Now!” Wexler contended, the U.S. government was “far more deeply militaristic than we even realize,” and it will “do whatever it’s going to do.”

“It’s certainly shown that about Syria. But they have to develop new theatrical events to make it seem like something good—you know, dropping bombs and then humanitarian aid, as the public thing is today of a new policy. So I think we have to know how the forces are, and to realize there is plenty in this country that will see through the sham before it’s too late,” Wexler suggested.

At 89, Wexler regularly showed up to Occupy Los Angeles with a camera to record what was happening in 2011. The Los Angeles Times talked to him about posting “short documentary vignettes online” about occupiers.

While he could have ignored Occupy and enjoyed his life as a revered filmmaker, Wexler recognized what made him feel alive was having a camera and an idea. Going down to speak to those involved in the Occupy movement was irresistible to him.

In 2010, Wexler shot the 2010 documentary directed by Saul Landau called, “Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up?” It was about the Cuban Five and told the story of the spies sent by Fidel Castro’s government to infiltrate a right-wing terrorist organization in Miami. When the spies shared evidence of terrorism with the FBI, the Cuban Five were put on trial and sent to prison.

When cinematographer and friend Brent Lon Hershman died in a car accident in 1997 after working a nineteen-hour day for the film, “Pleasantville,” Wexler took up the cause of workers, who are forced to put in excessive hours. He paid particular attention to abuses of film crews because he was personally familiar with labor practices in the movie industry.

He worked on a film in 2009 called “In the Name of Democracy: America’s Conscience, a Soldier’s Sacrifice,” which profiled Lieutenant Ehren Watada known as the first commissioned U.S. Army officer to refuse deployment to Iraq.

’24/7 attack on working people’

In 2006, Wexler completed the documentary, “Who Needs Sleep?” At the Sundance Film Festival, he described how the film explored the American history of unions. It examined the depletion of militant unions during the Cold War, through blacklists or anti-Communist threats and through the “complicity of labor unions working with employers who want to get the most out of workers for the least pay.”

“This 24/7 attack on working people is part of the out-of-whack priorities relating to human values and corporate values, relating to the bottom line, relating to what’s important enough, and feeding on the idea that our work is our life,” Wexler added. [The full documentary can be watched here.]

He made a documentary in 2000 called “Bus Rider’s Union,” which examined the struggle of bus riders to win affordable, safe, and adequate mass transit. Working class citizens, predominantly people of color, were at the forefront of this struggle.

Wexler collaborated with Landau on the documentary, “Target Nicaragua: Inside a Covert War” (1983). As Bob Fisher wrote for the International Documentary Association, he learned a secret war was being fought between the Contras and Sandinistas and “peasants and villagers were caught in the middle.” So, Wexler met with Americans from church groups who were volunteering to help poor Nicaraguans.

“It became evident that American government agencies were secretly and illegally aiding the Contras,” according to Fisher. His documentary aired “on PBS around the time that Newsweek magazine and the NBC network featured similar stories about the secret war that was later tied to what came to be known as the Iran-Contra Scandal. A few years later, Wexler produced, wrote, and directed ‘Latino,’ a dramatic interpretation of the documentary.”

Landau and Wexler also traveled to Chile and shot the film, “Brazil: A Report on Torture,” in 1971. It featured interviews with former Brazilian political prisoners, who described the torture, including waterboarding, which they experienced daily as a result of an authoritarian regime backed by the U.S. government.

Wexler worked on multiple films, which examined the fight against the threat posed by nuclear weapons—”Rocky Flats: Enhanced Radiation” (1982), “No Nukes” (1980), and “Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang” (1978).

In 1974, Wexler went to Vietnam with Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden and shot a film, “Introduction to the Enemy.” Fonda, Hayden, and Wexler traveled in North and South Vietnam and humanized the Vietnamese. It showed Americans just who their government was bombing and what were the real social and political issues citizens were confronting in the artificially divided country.

‘Killing himself to come work on this movie’

Though Wexler grew to appreciate documentary more than work on bigger film productions, he established himself by working on Hollywood productions.

He worked on “The Best Man” (1964), which was written by Gore Vidal and starred Henry Fonda. This classic film about American politics told the story of two front runners vying for a presidential nomination.

Wexler won an Oscar for his cinematography for “Bound for Glory,” the film about the early life of Woody Guthrie directed by Hal Ashby. He won an Oscar for his work on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966) as well.

He was a “visual consultant” for multiple films, including “American Graffiti” (1973).  As Ron Howard, who starred in the film, has recalled, “Everybody involved on the acting side didn’t know much about George Lucas, but was very impressed that Haskell Wexler was killing himself to come work on this movie.”

“[Wexler] would shoot a commercial during the day in Los Angeles, then fly to San Francisco, drive to Marin County, work there till dawn and then go get on a plane. And not once in a while. He was doing this three or four nights a week,” according to Howard.

As the Times noted in its obituary for Wexler, the cinematographer was colorblind. His style was to rely on contrasts and shadows. He also was a rare cinematographer who cared about the thematic, moral, and political elements of a story as much as the technical aspects of shooting the film.

Other films Wexler worked on included: “Mulholland Falls” (1996), “Canadian Bacon” (1995), “Other People’s Money” (1991), “Colors” (1988), “Matewan” (1987), “Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip” (1982), “Coming Home” (1978), “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), “The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968), and “In the Heat of the Night” (1967).

‘A great American document’

Of course, the film Wexler will always be most remembered for is “Medium Cool” (1969), which tells the story of a TV news reporter who becomes personally involved in the violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The film was shot during the DNC, including when Chicago police were beating and tear gassing demonstrators. Studs Terkel helped Wexler with the film.

It explored how the media dehumanizes people. In a 1969 interview, Wexler described to film critic Roger Ebert the power of making the main character a TV reporter:

… See, nothing is “real.” When you take a camera down to Michigan Ave. and point it at what’s happening, you’re still not showing “reality.” You’re showing that highly seductive area that’s in front of your camera. But there’s another element in the film. It has something to do with the professional, “just doing his job.” The film opens with that shot of the accident on the Outer Drive, and the two TV guys photograph it first and then report it to the police. Their job comes before their involvement. That business of “just doing my job” almost became a joke at the Nuremberg trials. But it’s very much a part of our lives now. There are people with nice suits, air-conditioned offices, grammatical English, who use their education to plan the end of the world, the destruction of people…

Ebert regarded “Medium Cool” as a “great American document, one of the most important films of this political and social period.” He praised Wexler for making a movie about Chicago that saw the people of the film as human beings, who were manipulated and influenced by events.

Wexler never lost optimism and always believed in the power of the people to overcome. He saw what he did as going out to tell the truth about what was happening in the country. Showing the truth would help mobilize people to change things. For example, millions of people protesting before the Iraq War demonstrated the population could shake off a feeling of powerlessness.

He also saw his role as a cinematographer and as a filmmaker as one, where he had a social responsibility to use his capacity to communicate with people and ignite conversation on pressing issues. He had a duty to ask questions and explore injustice and oppression because he was in a position where he could ask questions and successfully push for answers.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."