More than 10 years after his last full-length movie, “Gettin’ Grown” (2004), Loyola film professor Aaron Greer released his second feature film, “Service to Man,” Feb. 20. His latest film tackles race relations with a unique spin and humor.
“Service to Man” tells the story of Eli Rosenberg (Morgan Auld), a white, aspiring doctor in 1967 who’s only accepted into one medical school — Meharry Medical College, a famously all-black school at the time — after numerous rejections. For the first time, Rosenberg must experience being the minority in a culture different than his own.
The PHOENIX spoke with Greer about the film, its conception and his approach to low-budget filmmaking.
Greer entered the film scene with “Gettin’ Grown,” an independent feature about a family’s struggle to raise a child in the inner city. The movie was well received, garnering both the Right of the Child Award at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival and the Wiskid Award at the Wisconsin International Children’s Festival.
The idea for his second feature, “Service to Man,” came from his creative partner and co-director, Seth Panitch, who wrote the film’s screenplay loosely based on his father’s true experience. Panitch said he was inspired to write the story because of Meharry’s fabled status in his mind.
“As I grew up, I noticed there were two ‘categories’ of doctors — those who still practiced house calls (no matter the day or week) and those who looked at medicine as a job rather than a calling,” Panitch said. “As I grew older, I realized most of the doctors who viewed medicine as a sacred calling, as a service, were all my father’s friends from Meharry, so it has always held a mythical place in my mind.”
Greer said because Panitch is an experienced playwright and stage director, working with him was an easy decision. He asked Panitch to help him direct after seeing the personal connection Panitch had his father’s story. Greer said the collaboration couldn’t have gone better.
“[Co-directing] is a lot like parenting,” Greer said. “You defer to the other person’s strengths. You fall into natural roles. You try not to fight in front of the kids too much, and when you do have a disagreement, whoever feels the strongest wins. For us it went really smooth.”
Greer said the main hurdle while filmmaking was the same one many independent films face: lack of finances.
“With a lot of independent films, you got to figure out how to get things on the cheap,” he said. “There’s a lot of hustle involved … a lot of people worked for us for free or a deferred rate.”
Both Greer and Panitch’s roles as university professors helped them cut down on expenses — which would plague most other independent films.
“[Panitch] is a professor at the University of Alabama, so we were able to leverage our university connections [to save money],” Greer said. “There were students and former students who worked on the project.”
Greer said part of saving money meant he and the crew had to find ways to tell a thematically sprawling story on an intimate scale.
“We had to tell the story in a very ‘micro’ way. It’s very focused on personal experience,” Greer said. “It’s not ‘Selma.’ It doesn’t tell the whole civil rights story. That was very purposeful, both in terms of theme and narrative design and being a practical matter. We didn’t have the budget to shoot some big scene of the whole city in protest.”
Greer said he knew it was important to understand the plight of minorities in the United States in relation to mainstream media before discussing the specifics of the story.
“You’ll hear from persons of color and immigrants in this country that one of the experiences of being an outsider or minority in a mainstream culture is that you know the mainstream culture very well, but maybe not vice versa,” Greer said.
In addition to turning genre cliches on their head, Greer hopes to show viewers a different side of the black community’s experience during 1960s America.
“[It’s different] to see educated, professional black folks in the ‘60s when we’re used to seeing films about [black] people in the inner-city struggling,” Greer said. “This is not that story. This is the story of a whole class of educated doctors.”
According to Greer, there were two main medical schools black students could attend in the ‘60s: Howard University College of Medicine, located in Washington, D.C., and Meharry Medical College, located in Nashville, Tennessee. He said there’s a good chance most African American doctors of a certain age likely went to one of those two schools.
One of the goals of “Service to Man” is to show a mainstream population, namely white audiences, the experience of being a minority.
“[Minorities] experience being a minority all the time,” Greer said. “White people don’t get to experience being a minority many times. [‘Service to Man’ shows] it’s an interesting experience, sometimes painful, sometimes funny. The first thing a lot of people say after seeing the film is, ‘That was more funny than I expected,’ like they were expecting some heavy civil rights film. But it’s a film about being an awkward 20-something. [It’s] important for people who haven’t had that experience to know what it’s like.”
“Service to Man” is available for rental and purchase on streaming platforms such as Amazon and iTunes.