We learn in the opening moments of "Herblock: The Black & the White" that when famed Washington Post editorial cartoonist Herbert Block (best known by the signature in the film's title) was young, he drew a chalk caricature of Kaiser Wilhelm on the sidewalk, taking pleasure in the notion that his neighbors would be walking over it.
Block never lost the glee that came from creating images that would stir the pot and champion causes close to his heart. Michael Stevens' (son of filmmaker George Stevens Jr.) documentary celebrates Block's sharp, influential cartoons, drawn mostly for the Washington Post, through interviews with colleagues (Ben Bradlee, Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward) and numerous other well-known journalists (Ted Koppel, Brit Hume), along with present-day satirists Jon Stewart and Lewis Black, who marvel at Block's power to puncture pomposity with a single panel.
Stevens' film suffers from a lack of context (the Los Angeles Times' editorial cartoonist Paul Conrad, like Block, won three Pulitzers in the same era) as well as the curious decision to cast actor Alan Mandell as an elderly Block to deliver the man's musings on life and politics. The latter device, which sometimes comes off stilted, will undoubtedly confuse viewers unaware that Block died in 2001.
But Block's work, so often ahead of the curve (Woodward and Bernstein marvel at how he understood Watergate before them), always comes shining through, revealing an artist who made it his mission to champion the "little guy" and speak truth to power. Block's cartoons, which Stevens uses to fine effect, retain a power to still speak that truth to this day.
"Herblock: The Black & the White"
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; Laemmle Monica and Laemmle NohoCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun