The True Story of a Blind Electrician: “Born a Man” as a Document of Disability Rights

This week we’re happy to welcome guest blogger Brian Real to The Unwritten RecordBrian recently received his PhD in Information Studies from the University of Maryland. Brian regularly visits the research room in College Park so we’re used to seeing his name on order sheets for reference requests. We asked him to tell us more about some of the USIA films we’ve been transferring, and in honor of White Cane Safety Day, Brian has written this essay about Born a Man (Local Identifier: 306.5085).

In 1964, the United States Information Agency (USIA) hired educational filmmaker Gary Goldsmith to make a documentary about how blind persons were treated within the United States. The Soviets portrayed Americans as uncaring when it came to disabled individuals, so a simple, straightforward film showing American organizations caring for the blind would counteract this negative messaging. The film would be made for and distributed to foreign audiences through the USIA’s information centers in more than a hundred nations.

The project changed as Goldsmith conducted research. Instead of providing a broad look at the treatment of the blind in the United States, the resulting product, Born a Man, told the remarkable story of Jack Polston. Polston had recovered from an accident that blinded him and resumed his previous career as an electrician. Despite seemingly focusing on one person, Polston’s rehabilitation and life is representative of a larger movement supported by the National Federation of the Blind to promote legislative actions, training programs, and other efforts that would give blind persons greater mobility and more socioeconomic opportunities. I met with Gary Goldsmith in his Los Angeles home in May 2014 to discuss Born a Man. What follows is a brief history of the creation of this remarkable motion picture.

The Motion Picture Service of the USIA

During World War II, the United States government founded several programs to disseminate pro-American information and counter enemy propaganda abroad, such as the Office of War Information and the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs. These programs were dissolved after the war, but the Cold War made it necessary for the government to continue coordinated foreign messaging and counter communist propaganda. These public diplomacy activities were overseen by the Department of State until they were spun off and put under the purview of the newly created USIA in 1952.

The USIA countered foreign propaganda by making its own messaging seem trustworthy by showing both sides of the story, including clear flaws in the American system. An example of this is the well-respected reporting of the Voice of America Radio Network, which was one of the USIA’s flagship efforts. The Agency’s early motion picture efforts were often artistically uneven, but this output improved after George Stevens Jr. took over the Motion Picture Service in 1963. His tenure is marked by his recruitment of talented filmmakers to produce short documentaries under contract. The attempts at truthful reporting remained, with films like the 1964 classic The March optimistically showing Civil Rights activists’ efforts to better the nation, while not obscuring the reasons why such change was necessary.

The Motion Picture Service also purchased copies of many existing educational, government, and other nontheatrical films that fit their mission for foreign distribution. The USIA found filmmakers through these acquisitions, as was the case with Born a Man director Gary Goldsmith.

A straight-forward shot of Larry providing orientation and mobility instruction to Jack cuts to a blurred shot with the white cane in slightly better focus, representing Polston’s disorientation. Further shots reinforce this difficulty. Blurry, quick moving close-ups of the tip of the cane show that while Jack can gain some information from it, the cane cannot yet substitute for his sight when travelling.

Gary Goldsmith: Educational Filmmaker

Gary Goldsmith began his career as an educational filmmaker in 1956, after finishing a degree in film production from UCLA. After making several films for companies such as Churchill/Wexler and Film Associates, he and fellow filmmaker Ed Schuman started their own company, Dimension Films, in 1962.

Most educational films at that time were short, ten-to-fifteen minute works created by teachers rather than filmmakers. Goldsmith believed there was a market for longer form, more artistic works. The first project he wrote, directed, and edited as his own executive producer was True Story of an Election. The film followed two candidates, Democrat Richard T. Hanna and Republican Bob Geier, as they challenged each other for control of California’s newly created 34th Congressional district. Goldsmith had a high level of access, as the only campaign activities the candidates barred Goldsmith from filming were meetings with donors. Activities filmed included moments when former Vice President Nixon and former President Truman made campaign appearances for their respective party candidates. The result was a little known, forty-eight minute masterpiece of educational cinema, which provided secondary school students with an intimate look at the campaign process.

As Jack tries to think through what went wrong when crossing the street, a shot of the previous scene shows it from a high angle that shows the entire intersection and possible hazards. For Jack to be able to orient himself and travel alone, he will need to mentally construct spaces in a similar manner.
As Jack tries to think through what went wrong when crossing the street, a shot of the previous scene shows it from a high angle that shows the entire intersection and possible hazards. For Jack to be able to orient himself and travel alone, he will need to mentally construct spaces in a similar manner.

Recruitment by USIA

True Story of an Election was one of many films the USIA purchased for distribution to its cultural centers, since it could show foreign audiences the benefits of democracy without shying away from some of the less pleasant aspects of the campaign process. Goldsmith recalls that when he was recruited, a USIA employee called, explained what the Agency did, and stated, “We’ve seen your film about the election, and we have a project to do a film about rehabilitation of the blind. If you’d like to do that film, we’ll go ahead, and if you don’t want to do it, we won’t call you again.” Goldsmith accepted the commission.

The USIA recruiter explained they wanted a film about the treatment of the blind “to counteract Soviet propaganda portraying the United States as a heartless society that exploited the weak and had no support for people in need. They wanted to show that people with disabilities had government support.” The contract was for a ten minute documentary on American organizations that helped blind persons. As Goldsmith conducted research into this area, though, the project became far more interesting.

As Jack waits for Larry to arrive and assist him, a woman approaches him and forces a coin into his hand before he has time to react. In anger over the assumption that he must be needy and dependent on others, he throws the coin in the direction the woman went. This action motivates him to defy expectations and rely on himself.

Jack Polston, Jacobus tenBroek, and Born a Man

Goldsmith met Jack Polston in 1964 during his pre-filming research. Polston had been an electrician before he was blinded in an accident years before. After completing training at the State of California Department of Rehabilitation Orientation Center for the Blind in Oakland, he resumed his former trade. He criticized most other available rehabilitation programs because the organizations running them, whether they were nonprofits or run by state and local governments, were led by sighted individuals who gave blind persons little input into their own assistance. The end result was limited mobility training and the placement of blind persons in “sheltered” workshops, where they performed simple tasks in protected environments in exchange for remuneration that was usually below the minimum wage. The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) was the leading advocacy organization against such treatment and for greater independence, with affiliated institutions like the Oakland Orientation Center providing training needed to enable blind Americans.

Polston suggested that Goldsmith speak to NFB founder Jacobus tenBroek, a Professor of Speech and Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley who, like most of the leadership of the NFB, was blind himself. He was also an influential advocate for civil rights. Thurgood Marshall used tenBroek’s writings on the fourteenth amendment when crafting his successful arguments in Brown v. Board, and other research argued against the constitutionality of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. In a minor coincidence, Goldsmith had taken a course that tenBroek taught on Constitutional Law when he was a sophomore.

tenBroek discussed the needs of blind Americans and flaws with what he saw as paternalistic, oppressive rehabilitation systems in his 1959 book Hope Deferred: Public Welfare and the Blind. He instead advocated for greater federal support for sight impaired individuals that would protect them from the risk of poverty, coupled with employment protections and government funding for training programs to enable them to achieve greater personal and financial independence. Federal legislation based on these ideals failed to pass Congress in 1959, despite Senator John F. Kennedy sponsoring his chamber’s version of the bill and Jack Polston testifying before Congress as an exemplar of what a blind individual could achieve with proper orientation and mobility training. However, this laid the groundwork for similar laws in numerous states and future Civil Rights efforts led by disabled Americans.

Learning of the NFB and tenBroek’s positions, combined with witnessing his and Polston’s own autonomy and high level of personal and professional success, led Goldsmith to shift the focus of his film from traditional organizations that took a paternalistic stance with the blind to instead reflect the NFB’s philosophy. To tell this story, Jack Polston agreed to reenact his own rehabilitation. Goldsmith also received the USIA’s approval to make this change with no resistance whatsoever. It is because of this shift that the resulting film, Born a Man, is a stirring document of the early stages of the drive for civil rights for disabled persons, showing their desire for independence and societal value.

Realizing that Larry isn’t coming and he must depend on himself, Jack begins to cross the street alone. A low-angle shot of the tip of the cane shows nearby traffic clearly, with the lack of blurring from previous cane shots demonstrating the Jack can now use the instrument to adequately perceive his surroundings. After an edit to another angle, Jack is wearing a different shirt. This is not a continuity error, but instead it is a different day and travelling alone has become routine. Jack smiles as his self-confidence returns and continues to grow.

Some Notes on the Film

Goldsmith used fictional elements in Born a Man, but the end result is a film that is emotionally truthful. Polston was not married at the time of his accident. Instead, he met his wife, who was also blind, after he lost his sight. The couple made national news when his wife gave birth to twins in 1964, the same year Born a Man was produced. Knowing this does not make the casting of an actress to play a fictional, sighted wife who is pregnant feel manipulative. Instead, seeing her care for and guide Polston demonstrates his initial sense of helplessness, while his concerns about how he will provide for her and his impending first child emphasizes his fears about how he will be able to fulfill traditional masculine roles and maintain a sense of purpose. Externalizing these fears through his relationships with family allows Polston’s reenactment to efficiently convey emotional truths he internalized after his accident.

Other details are true to the events Polston had experienced years before, including having the social worker and the orientation and mobility instructor who assisted him play themselves. Likewise, the two street crossing scenes – the dramatic highlights of the film – accurately show how the Oakland Orientation Center operated. When Goldsmith visited the Center on a research trip before shooting, a representative told him trainees were not informed upon entering that, once they reached a certain level of ability and confidence, they would be left alone in a public place to fend for themselves. Polstron’s anger and sense of betrayal at being forced to put his new abilities to use without supervision were accurate representations of his experiences, as was the satisfaction that came with reclaiming his autonomy and ability to resume his former trade.

Completion and Subsequent Work

When Goldsmith completed a rough cut of the film, he flew to Washington, DC to show it to George Stevens Jr. and other USIA staffers. He had been told to expect suggestions for how to cut it from twenty minutes to the ten minutes stipulated in the contract. Knowing this, Goldsmith screened the film and read narration aloud himself, since this had not yet been recorded. When the lights went up he was informed the film merited its length. No cuts were requested. To further lift the prestige of an excellent work, the USIA sought out Edward G. Robinson as the narrator for prints distributed in English language territories.

After his rehabilitation training, Jack Polston returned to his job as an electrician.

Following Stevens’ departure and due to the fact that he was better able to earn a living from making his own educational films, Goldsmith ceased contract work with the USIA. He continued his educational film work work into the 1990s, when he shifted to multimedia projects. From 1997 through 2009 he worked with the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, teaching filmmaking, coordinating the beginning production courses, and contributing to the program curriculum. He still lives in Los Angeles where he continues to work on various interactive media projects.

Brian Real completed his PhD in Information Studies from the University of Maryland in summer 2015. His dissertation focused on the historical intersection of film preservation and public policy from the 1960s to the present. He is working on several academic journal articles on the United States Information Agency film program, one of which will be an extended version of this blog post.

3 thoughts on “The True Story of a Blind Electrician: “Born a Man” as a Document of Disability Rights

  1. You hear stories like this of truly heroic people, and just have to wonder what actually pushes these people to go on, and not take anything, but still earn their way. It is definitely an inspiration.

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