Filmmaker aims for commercially viable pics, but the subtext of social consciousness comes from an activist mindset
It’s not every day that you step into an office where one wall is covered with posters of Papa Smurf, George of the Jungle and ALF and the opposite is lined with personal photos of Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou and Coretta Scott King. Then again, it’s not every Hollywood producer who moonlights as a fundraising, policy-writing political savant.
“Most of my political photos are in the main office,” Jordan Kerner says, as he scours his production office for a certain photo of Hillary Clinton. Blue critters do outnumber Clintons in Kerner’s headquarters on the Sony lot, where “The Smurfs 2” is being readied for release July 31.
The former Secretary of State is just one of some dozen Democratic players to whom Kerner has lent his support. They include include Sen. Barbara Boxer, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and “SNL”-scribe-turned-senator Al Franken. Whether that support translates into a generous check, a door-to-door champion or a formidable opponent for a mock debate on arts and education policies — well, that depends on the candidate.
“I don’t mind writing checks or soliciting funds,” Kerner says, “But for me, it’s really about the nuts and bolts. I’m not interested in palling around (with candidates). I’m interested in calling attention to how effective they’re going to be in passing certain legislation.”
Though a self-described ’60s politico from an early age, Kerner fully developed his passion for grassroots politics on the Farm. As an undergrad at Stanford, Kerner spent weekends canvassing San Francisco to draw up supporters for Dianne Feinstein, who was running for the Board of Supervisors in 1970. Kerner continued to back her candidacy through mayoral, gubernatorial and Senate elections and has remained an ardent proponent of Feinstein’s politics ever since.
It might at first seem like a paradox, but along with being ground zero for Kerner’s political involvement, the Bay Area is also where he decided to abandon his own aspirations of holding office (as in the Oval Office) and head straight for the media.
Kerner found a formative mentor in Stanford communications professor Jules Dundes, who taught him that film and television could sometimes effect more change than legislation.
“He said to me, ‘You’re too good of a person to become a politician. I want you to go into the media and tell stories that can help change the body politic.’”
Dundes’ words continue to inspire each of Kerner’s projects. While pics like “Charlotte’s Web,” “George of the Jungle,” and “The Smurfs” may seem like standard family fare, Kerner says each one is imbued with a political message.
“We try to be very careful about not hitting people over the head with a polemic, but to show a world as it exists and allow you to draw your own conclusions,” he says, in this case referring to Smurfs’ Village, which has no electricity or environmental waste.
For this producer, it’s more important to get a small message out to a big audience, rather than make a conventionally political film that’s seen by a relative few.
Sen. Franken (D-Minn.), who co-wrote the screenplay for Kerner’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” with Ronald Bass, talks about the subtext inherent in the producer’s canon. “There was nothing inherently political about ‘When a Man Loves a Woman,’” Franken says. “It’s really a love story about alcoholism and codependency. But when you work closely with someone who has a passion for justice, which I think ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’ speaks to, then you get a sense of what’s important to him.
“Jordan is someone who cares about people as individuals. There are, famously, some politicians who care about humanity but don’t connect with people. Maybe that’s the small ‘p’ Jordan is referring to when he describes his passion for what he calls ‘politics with a little p.’ He’s attracted to stories about people (and Smurfs).”
Such dramas about the racial divide as “Fried Green Tomatoes” and the TV movies “Heat Wave” and “Mama Flora’s Family” stand out as more overt in their social consciousness than Kerner’s oeuvre would suggest on the surface.
These films took on personal resonance for Kerner and then-producing partner Jon Avnet, who were inspired by people and events from their own experiences growing up during the civil rights era. The pair collaborated with “Roots” author Alex Haley to write the novel and miniseries “Mama Flora’s Family,” whose characters were based on Haley’s mother and the beloved African-American women who helped raise both Avnet and Kerner.
“I was horrified by (that period),” Kerner says. “These were stories we had to tell.”
Kerner remembers what Avnet conveyed to Mandela upon pitching him the team’s concept for a biographical mini: “The color of our skin may not tell you that we can tell this story well but please believe that this is very much in our hearts.”
Kerner and Avnet never had the chance to make a series about the anti-apartheid revolutionary — HBO’s 2005 made-for “Mandela & de Klerk” scooped them — but Kerner’s got plans to get back to politics for the smallscreen soon.
As for those political aspirations of yore — despite much speculation — Kerner says he prefers his residence in Smurf Village to one in Washington.