A group of Chicago-area filmmakers, some with close Evanston connections, have produced a new documentary about the life and work of the late federal judge, congressman and political activist Abner Mikva.
The program, “Mikva! Democracy is a Verb,” airs at 8 p.m. on Oct. 29 on WTTW. It was directed by veteran documentarian Bob Hercules, an Evanston resident, and executive produced by Greg Kinczewski, another Evanstonian, who is a retired attorney.
“I think we’ve done a pretty good job of capturing Ab’s career and personality, and how the Mikva Challenge is carrying on the work,” said Mr. Kinczewski.
Judge Mikva, a Wisconsin native, became involved in Chicago-area politics in the early ’50s. He represented the 10th Congressional District, which includes parts of Evanston, from 1975-79, a solid achievement for a progressive Democrat at a time when the area solidly trended moderate Republican.
He was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter. He retired from the federal bench in 1994 and became White House Counsel for President Bill Clinton from 1994-1995.
Judge Mikva died in 2016. One of his defining legacies is the Mikva Challenge, an initiative that encourages engagement of youth, especially those from marginalized communities, within the political process.
“Mikva!” chronicles the origins of Judge Mikva’s activism and traces his career through his work in local and federal politics, and his entry into the federal judiciary as well as his later years.
Mr. Kinczewski worked with Judge Mikva in the ‘70s. He said that the documentary stemmed from an idea he had in the mid-2010s wherein participants in the Mikva Challenge would be filmed interviewing Judge Mikva.
Mr. Kinczewski initially received tutelage on producing nonfiction films from Steven Cohen, Judge Mikva’s son-in-law. Mr. Cohen encouraged Mr. Kinczewski to expand the scope of the film from one produced just for the internal use of the Mikva Challenge to a full-fledged profile for public viewing. Mr. Hercules was engaged to direct and interview Judge Mikva, but scheduling issues and the judge’s declining health and subsequent death necessitated a change in format.
Mr. Kinczewski, Mr. Hercules and their colleagues gathered interviews with and testimonials from former staffers, colleagues and acquaintances of Judge Mikva, some of whom were interviewed shortly after the judge’s memorial service. Among those appearing in the film are President Barack Obama, one of Judge Mikva’s mentees; U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who also shows up in vintage footage working with the Judge while he served in Congress; and political consultant/activist David Axelrod.
Mr. Kinczewski described working on the documentary as a “return to my roots,” since working for Judge Mikva was his first job after leaving the military in 1974.
“I got out of the army on a Friday – I think it was June 30 – and walked into the [Mikva] office on July 1,” he recalled.
Mr. Kinczewski was a press aide and a field operations director for Judge Mikva during various Congressional runs, and also served on his Congressional staff. He used a baseball analogy to describe the judge’s mentorship.
“Working for Ab, in my mind, was like being one of the rookie catchers who were being teamed up with a veteran, very wily, very vaunted starting pitcher,” Mr. Kinczewski said. “The pitcher is the one sharing his knowledge, telling you how he wants to pitch, always being candid and open about his thinking. But he was also doing a play-by-play, like Vin Scully. … We learned so much.”