PARIS–“Cousin Bobby,” a low-key, occasionally touching documentary, is essentially a home movie but one with broad appeal. “Silence of the Lambs” director Jonathan Demme looked up to the Rev. Robert Castle, an older cousin whom he hadn’t seen for more than 30 years, and followed his crusading relative around at intervals over a year and a half.
A natural for public television, this portrait of a confirmed activist who literally practices what he preaches should have a useful second life among grass-roots organizers and in American studies resource libraries.
Spiritual leader at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church at 126th Street in Harlem, Castle, a white man, is clearly a respected and valuable presence in the predominantly black and Hispanic community he serves.
Bobby is seen at work in Harlem, demanding that a traffic light be installed at a dangerous intersection, insisting that a pothole be repaired, marshaling public support to keep local hospital facilities for childbirth open and campaigning for more drug rehab programs.
Utterly laid-back director Demme, heard in voice-overs and seen on-camera in casual summer garb, interviews his cousin’s parishioners, his children and other relatives and walks the city streets where Bobby’s formative years were spent.
Helmer comes across as curious about Bobby’s life but, somewhat endearingly, seems to have trouble keeping track of his own family tree.
In the 1960s, as a young priest with a wife and family, Bobby’s encounter with a local Black Panther had a profound effect on him and his work took a controversial turn.
The clergyman’s ex-wife jokes about how their children began to take it for granted that their dad was in jail somewhere in connection with his militant pro-civil-rights stance.
Energetic and likable, 60-year-old Bobby is a stickler for opposition to institutionalized racism who invites religious leaders of many faiths to give blessings and conduct services. There is no nostalgia for the ’60s per se, because the issues that burst forth in Harlem back then clearly remain a daily component of life in that community.
Demme’s own father and Bobby are reunited on camera for the first time in many decades. Bobby, a born orator, speaks movingly of the death by drowning of one of his sons.
Archival footage of race riots past is bound to strike a chord with viewers who witnessed recent racial violence in Los Angeles.
Not every home movie has the likes of Ernest Dickerson behind the camera or so thoughtful a score of contemporary multicultural sounds. Despite these big-league touches, pic remains a loosely structured, intimate project most noteworthy for its heart.