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Film 'Service To Man' Examines Challenges Of Being An Outsider In 1960s South

The new film Service to Man is a story about Eli Rosenberg, a white Jewish student in the 1960s who is accepted at Meharry Medical School, a black college in Nashville--the only school where he was accepted. He and black student Michael Dubois eventually forge a bond.

Service to Man is playing as part of Tallgrass Film Festival. KMUW’s Carla Eckels spoke with co-director Aaron Greer, who is in Wichita to speak at the festival.

Carla Eckels: Can you give us a bit of a synopsis? What is Service to Man about?

Aaron Greer: Well, Service to Man is kind of a fish-out-of-water story that’s set in the late 1960s, and it’s about one of the first white students who goes to an all-black medical school in the South, and obviously it’s a culture shock for him. Medical school is hard enough, but being one of only two white students at the school provides some challenges for him, and like a lot of New Yorkers, he’s from Brooklyn. He had barely been outside of the borough, much less to the Deep South.

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Eli in a scene from the film.

So it’s kind of a story about some of his challenges, but also the challenges generally of these students going to this medical school at a time of unrest and challenge in this country. So at Meharry [Medical School], he meets several classmates, one of whom becomes sort of a nemesis, kind of the co-star of the film, Michael Dubois. His challenges are different ones. He’s kind of a legacy student. His father and grandfather both went to Meharry, so he has to live up to kind of a different set of challenges.

So it’s really about both of them [Eli and Michael] struggling through medical school, struggling with what’s going on around them, and struggling to figure out who they are as people and who they are going to be as doctors.

Tell us about how you came to make this movie.

The film is inspired by true events. Very, very loosely based, obviously heavily dramatized, but my co-director and writer of the film, Seth Panitch, came up with the idea, pitched me the idea and it’s loosely based on some of the experience his father had being one of the first white students at Meharry Medical College...in the mid- and late 60s.

It’s interesting that Seth is actually one of the characters in the movie.

That’s right. Seth is kind of a triple threat by trade: He’s a playwright and actor and a stage director. This is his first feature film, but he’s a professional actor, so when we were thinking about casting the film and the characters we needed, it made a lot of sense for him to play a role of professor in the film.

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I thought the characters really played their parts so well, including veteran actor Keith David, who played a dean of the school.

The name of the film comes from the motto of the school, which is the worship of God through the service to man. That is kind of ethic than runs through the school. We read books about the place and we visited the place and talked to people who are there who are still were there in the 1960s.

How has this film changed you?

I’ve always been interested in fish-out-of-water stories. I’m a biracial man, and I feel like I’m always a fish out of water for all of my life, so in a lot of respects this film relates to a lot of the work that I do and I am interested in. I’m also a history major so I like period pieces, so for me personally I think it was just nice to be able to kind of explore that story or some of that subject matter in a different way, in a way that we haven’t seen it. That meant a lot to me.

What would you like the audience to take away from this film?

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Aaron Greer.

I guess I would like the audience to take away from the film is that it’s always a challenge to be an outsider, but there [are] always ways to kind of cross that divide. Whether that divide is [cultural], economic, geographic, there are ways to cross that divide and usually the way to do that is working with other people and to be about the right thing.

We have gotten to place in our culture where we’re all kind of frustrated with the medical system, with the insurance system, but that most doctors get into medicine because they really do care about patients. So for me this is a reminder to viewers about that, and not just to patients but to doctors. Let it be a reminder that why people really get into medicine, that it’s about healing people and it’s about serving people.

Greer, along with writer and co-director Seth Panitch, will be in Wichita at the screening of the film at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 16, at the Wichita Scottish Rite Center.

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Carla Eckels is assistant news director and the host of Soulsations. Follow her on Twitter @Eckels.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.