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Henry Ford's ghost confronts complex legacy in new film by U-M professor

By Sydney Hawkins

The James and Anne Duderstadt Center opened in 1996 as the Media Union and will mark its 25th anniversary with an open house-style week of events Oct. 4-8. (Photo courtesy of Duderstadt Center staff)

ANN ARBOR—Why did you undermine Edsel? How did the “working man’s friend” become the enemy of Labor? Why did you hate Jews? 

Writer/Director/Composer, Andy Kirshner

These are three of the 10 questions posed to the ghost of Henry Ford in a new film produced, written and directed by Andy Kir­sh­ner, an associate professor at the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art & Design and School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

Part documentary, part biopic, 10 Ques­tions for Henry Ford follows Ford’s character, played by actor John Lepard, on a journey through the modern-day, post-industrial landscape of southeast Michigan, juxtaposing it with historical footage and photographs from 1914-41, Ford’s period of greatest public influence. The film also features several dance sequences choreographed by Debbie Williams, reflecting on Ford’s passion for “traditional” music and dance.

The 67-minute-long feature-length film is set to premiere Nov. 6 at the Ojai Film Fes­ti­val and will be avail­able on-demand virtually through the festival’s website to national audiences Nov. 9-14.

To piece together the film, Kirshner poured through Ford’s personal notebooks, letters and documents, as well as newspaper clips, interviews, photographs, video footage and oral histories. He found them in various historical archives, including the National Archives, the Benson Ford Research Center at the Henry Ford Museum, the U-M Bentley Historical Library and the Rabbi Leo M. Franklin Archives at Temple Beth El.

“The presentation of it is very unique because the dialogue is completely based on words and ideas expressed by Ford,” said Kirshner, who began research for the film in 2016. “In some cases, we’re ‘guessing’ what he would have said based on how he is documented to have responded to personal and historical events throughout his life, and in others, we hear his words verbatim.”  

It opens with Ford’s ghost (Lepard) watching footage from his own public memorial viewing at Greenfield Village in 1947, where he comments that he could have made the process for the mile-long line of mourners waiting to see his casket “much more efficient.” 

The scene, which uses actual historical footage Kirshner found in the National Archives, is a technique that he utilizes throughout the film. As Ford (Lepard) glances toward a clearing at his Fair Lane estate in Dearborn, the focus shifts to a clip—or memory—of him there with his grandchildren and wife, Clara; as he approaches the Ford River Rouge Plant, footage of the violent Battle of the Overpass, where members of the United Auto Workers clashed with Ford Motor Co. security guards, flashes onto the screen. 

Ford Motor Company Servicemen beat Richard Frankensteen, a UAW organizer, during the “Battle of the Overpass”, Dearborn, MI.

Scenes were shot over the course of three years at various locations in southeast Michigan, including Greenfield Village in Dearborn, the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores, the Highland Park Model T plant, the remaining Willow Run Bomber Plant building in Ypsilanti, and the site of Ford’s first workshop at 58 Bagley Ave. in downtown Detroit. Viewers will also notice Detroit scenes shot inside the People Mover, outside of Michigan Central Station and at the Detroit Institute of Arts, where Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals—commissioned by Ford’s late son, Edsel—can still be found. 

The picture that Kirshner paints of Ford is brutally honest. At the heart of his exploration into the American icon is a series of inflammatory anti-Semitic articles that he published in the 1920s through his personal newspaper, The Dearborn Independent. Blaming Jews for everything from World War I and economic depression to short skirts and the corrupting influence of Jazz, Ford’s publications quickly spread around the world—and to Germany, where they became enormously popular. Adolf Hitler praised Ford as “the leader of our fascist movement in America,” and awarded him a medal. 

“On one hand, you have this person who accepted a medal from one of the worst people in human history, and on the other hand, he described himself as a pacifist,” said Kirshner, who also composed the music for the film. “In fact, there is existing correspondence between Henry Ford and Gandhi.”  

The ghost of Henry Ford (John Lepard) kills time on Detroit’s “People Mover”

Another theme explored throughout the film is Ford’s relationship with his son, Edsel, whom he was close to as a child, but increasingly estranged from as an adult. According to Kirshner, oral histories in the archives showed that the two grew further apart as time went by, especially as their differences in politics, management style and personality came to light.

“During the years that I worked on this film, I was constantly struck by how similar that world was to the one we find ourselves in today, he said. “As is the case in our current historical moment, Ford’s era was a period of enormous technological and social change, marked by political demagoguery, anti-immigrant exclusionism, economic inequality and domestic terrorism.”

The lingering ghost of Henry Ford wanders Detroit in 2021

As the film progresses, each of the “10 questions” is posed to Ford’s ghost as he encounters ruins of his former factories, the resilient beauty of the Rouge River, the violent legacy of his own words and insistent memories of his son.

According to Kirshner, each “answer” is layered and complicated. 

“The film is a musi­cal-visual-chore­o­graphic rumi­na­tion on the ways in which the lit­eral and fig­u­ra­tive ghosts of the past still haunt us,” he said. “I believe that we need to deconstruct the myths and the icons of American history in order to explore the complexity of these people who have been presented to us only as heroes or villains—and also to fully understand ourselves.”

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