Film Review: “Ricky on Leacock” — A Definitive Documentary of a Pioneer Filmmaker

A hedonist and humanist, admired filmmaker Ricky Leacock was curious about everyone, including the rich and famous, especially if he could show them sans their celebrity masks.

By Gerald Peary

It took decades for filmmaker Richard Leacock, the pioneer of cinéma vérité, to recognize me when we met about Boston, and I don’t think he ever knew my name. I took it philosophically: I’m a guy. If I were a pretty gal, Leacock would have known me immediately. Our last conversation was a sad one, at the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina in 2008, for I saw first-hand this famous lover of women feeling his mortality. Standing together at a cocktail party, the then 87-year-old sighed, and confided in me, “I can no longer touch. I can only look.”

Filmmaker Ricky Leacock — He made films about the things and people he loved..

Leacock, who died in 2011, had female groupies everywhere, including otherwise-feminists, and a legion of them showed up at a memorial service afterward at MIT. They were good-naturedly acknowledged in a generous speech by his widow and filmmaking collaborator, Valerie Lalonde. And one of his distaff groupies (I would assume so; I have never met her), Jane Weiner, has rewarded her mentor of 30 years with a gift of pure, radiant love: a fabulous, definitive documentary feature on his work and life, Ricky on Leacock, playing at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA as part of the DocYard series on Monday, April 8, at 7 p.m., with the filmmaker present.

Weiner calls him “Ricky,” and so did everyone else. And though we were never intimate, and though I never once was invited to his legendary Somerville dinners, featuring his extraordinary, international cooking, I will call him “Ricky” also, out of affection and respect. No doubt, he was a charmer of a man, with his school-of-George Plimpton patrician voice, his Gregory Peck impeccable looks.

For those who don’t know, Ricky was the cameraman-cinematographer-director who, while using actual film for half a century, strived to accomplish what videomakers finally would do with such ease: shoot quickly and spontaneously, anywhere and everywhere, including up close and intimately, and without those who you were shooting noticing you were shooting or changing their behavior because you were shooting. None of this is possible with traditional, elephantine, 35 mm cameras, so Ricky experimented obsessively to utilize 16mm cameras in the most fluid, peripatetic ways, off the tripod and also with even lighter super-8mm. That’s all evident in the sublime documentaries made by Ricky and his talented students—Robb Moss, Ross McElwee, and many others—when he ran the MIT Film Unit (1969–1988).

In his final years, Ricky and Valerie moved to Paris, where, he felt, the French really understood his oeuvre. And he embraced video completely for his last works, proclaiming “I do more experimenting now than ever in my life.”

For her great documentary, Weiner is not only privy to prime footage from many, many of Ricky’s films, going back to Canary Island Bananas (1935), but she has interviews with Ricky over many decades. For example, when the subject is Robert Flaherty’s iconic Louisiana Story (1948), for which Ricky was cameraman, Weiner cuts revealingly between Ricky’s recollections over 30 years, in which he seems to increasingly appreciate Flaherty’s disorganized approach to shooting, not having any idea what he would do on any day. He often welcomed being distracted from the principal story.

Ultimately, that was Ricky’s way of seeing the filmic world. Though he made some hard-hitting documentaries about Louisiana segregation and the KKK, he was the least political of cinéma vérité filmmakers. A hedonist and humanist, he was curious about everyone, including the rich and famous, especially if he could show them sans their celebrity masks. Leonard Bernstein. Nehru. JFK and RFK. He liked to hang about with his camera, not knowing what the narrative was going to be. He agreed with what Flaherty did on Louisiana Story: seemingly squandering a whole day with a large crew filming up close a spider spinning its web.

“I like everything about searching for images” was Ricky’s credo. “I make films about things I love, and people I love.” All true. And if a gorgeous, young woman could be hired on for assistant camera, so much the better.


  1. Kathy on April 9, 2013 at 11:09 am

    Fascinating… I love when a piece like this gets me to do a little bit more research on the subject…and I found this interview w/ Richard Leacock.

  2. Phil Gries on February 23, 2019 at 10:45 pm

    *I would love to share with you my unprecedented documentary related to its circa and subject matter
    …restored and now preserved, 49 years after I made the film.

    For the first time in almost half a century HARLEM SCHOOL 1970 continues to be screened to the public.
    Thank you for your interest. For those who cannot attend the screening please contact me at to receive a
    Vimeo link & password enabling you to view the complete feature film. Kindly respond back to me with your helpful subjective,
    positive and negative comments.
    Thank you.

    With Much Appreciation,

    Maysles Documentary Center

    Made in Harlem: “Harlem School 1970”
    • Thursday, February 28, 2019
    • 6:30 PM 9:30 PM
    • Shepard Hall at City College 259 Convent Avenue New York, NY, 10031


    Thursday, February 28th, 6:30pm
    Made in Harlem: Harlem School 1970
    This is a Free Program
    @ The City College of New York
    Shepard Hall
    259 Convent Avenue
    Co-presented by the Documentary Forum at CCNY, Third World Newsreel, and Maysles Cinema
    “HARLEM SCHOOL 1970” – Phil Gries, 2018, 50 mins
    (What was it like to live in Harlem, New York in 1970 and attend elementary school?)

    “HARLEM SCHOOL 1970” is the only known feature length documentary filmed inside a public inner city elementary school during the
    1960’s, 1970, 0r 1980’s in the USA. Never before released to the public, and almost a half century since it was produced independently
    by cinematographer Phil Gries, a surviving original 16mm print has been digitized, (Du Art Labs in NYC), re-edited and restored for
    preservation and presentation with the assistance of Ben Woolf.

    Without narration or interviews this early example of ‘direct cinema’ documentary reveals a conventional ‘day in the life’ of
    Community School 30, during its first school year of operation (September 1969-June 1970), form early morning arrival to dismissal time.

    Community School 30 is located at 128th street and Lexington Avenue. Currently the building is divided between a public school
    and a charter school.

    Q&A panel discussion after the screening with Phil Gries, filmmakers, educators, and students appearing in the film. Moderator,
    David Davidson, CCNY Graduate Film Department Chair & Producer.
    Dedicated: to Kim Coull, former 4th grade student, who at age 60 passed away February 9th. She was scheduled to appear on the panel.
    This program is part of
    Made In Harlem: Class of ‘68
    Fall 2018- Spring 2019

    In the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King (April 4th, 1968) and the subsequent riots throughout America’s tapestry of urban centers –
    a fruitful reformer’s zeal possessed the U.S. which lead in part to the dawn of Black and Ethnic Studies programs, and the first community colleges.
    More locally in Harlem the Studio Museum was founded, as well as the National Black Theater, and El Museo del Barrio. As well in 1968, galvanized
    by the assassination of MLK, the New York City Ballet’s first African American star Arthur Mitchell (1934-2018) began teaching at the Harlem School
    of the Arts, and formed what would become the Dance Theater of Harlem in 1969.

    Made in Harlem: Class of ’68, a film and speaker series, unpacks and explores the period before, during, and after the birth of these key cultural
    institutions in Harlem, as well as their impact, a period where Black Power, the Civil Rights Era, and Black Arts Movement coalesced and helped forge
    new aesthetics, politics, understandings and philosophies – the legacy of which is found everywhere throughout the planet in the early 21st century.
    As Harlem, the United States, and the planet goes through rapid transformation there is hunger and yearning for context, understanding and
    literacy of our shared, and often erased history. This is an opportunity to quench that thirst. Made in Harlem is directed & programmed by Jessica Green.

    Phil Gries
    Gries Cinema Productions – 516-656(FILM)3456 (
    Archival Television Audio, Inc. 516-656-5677 (
    CELL – 516-317-8957
    209 Sea Cliff Avenue
    Sea Cliff, New York 11579

    “HARLEM SCHOOL 1970”

    (50 minutes – Phil Gries – USA)

    Award of Recognition: Documentary Feature
    Impact DOCS Awards

    Official Selection Feature Documentary
    San Diego Black Film Festival (2019)
    “A very special wonderful document…shot
    – Chris Hegedus
    Academy Award winning Documentary Filmmaker.
    “What an important and prescient film!
    You have done impressive work, Phil.”
    –Bill Moyers
    American journalist / political commentator.
    “We feel a real kinship and hope we can make
    the Los Angeles screening.”
    – Dawn & Jim O’Keefe
    Award winning documentary filmmakers – Blue Field Productions.
    “An astonishing documentary.”
    –Ron Simon
    Curator, Television & Radio at Paley Center for Media.
    “Your film looked great…loved the B/W cinematography.
    A valuable time capsule documentary.”
    – Alan Raymond
    Academy Award winning documentary filmmaker.
    “HARLEM SCHOOL 1970 made me more than
    a little nostalgic for the days when the Maysles, Pennebaker,
    Leacock, Wiseman, et al, first captured my own imagination
    with this new cinema. Your film reminded me of the patience
    and discipline it took to wait for the moment.”
    –Dave Davidson
    Documentary award winning filmmaker & Chair of CCNY Graduate MFA Film program.
    “The skill I see in this film, working alone with a Bolex and
    capturing audio, covering the workflow, as if you had several
    producers and cameras scoping the area, and showing the
    attention to detail…artistry beyond measure.
    A great film and more.”
    -Alan Lebow
    Director of Photography award winning filmmaker – Alan Lebow Productions.
    “HARLEM SCHOOL 1970” was one of the very select group
    of finalists during our viewing and deliberation process and
    we recognized it as an exceptional and high-quality work.”
    -Michael Lumpkin
    Director, AFI DOCS 2018 Film Festival.
    “I was just knocked out by the caring exhibited by teachers
    and personnel even with all the madness of one’s surrounding.”
    -Eric Kulberg
    Executive Producer, Universal Media, Inc.
    ‘Harlem School 1970,’ a “fly on the wall” documentary,
    revealing a day in that world, one I would have never gotten
    to experience otherwise. A true documentation of life at a
    fascinating place during a unique time without being emotionally
    -Jackson Upperco
    USC Film Department Graduate student.
    “Viewing ‘Harlem School 1970’ did not disappoint! The Photography
    is superb, and your matching of “wild sound” was executed perfectly.
    I am amazed that you got so much close-up footage without anyone
    breaking the fourth wall. It certainly is remarkable that there aren’t
    more movies like this around, but the reward, all these years later,
    is a big one. A terrific documentary.
    -Gary Rutkowski
    Broadcast Archivist ( University of Wyoming.
    “I really loved watching it…all the kids & different teachers,
    incredibly being transported back into that world. An important
    time capsule documentary.”
    -Jeffrey Schwarz
    Emmy Award winning Producer & Director.

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