Documentary Explores Ethel Kennedy’s Personal Past
Photographer not credited for photo of Ethel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Documentary Explores Ethel Kennedy’s Personal Past

  • Post category:Art

Note: Because Ethel and Rory Kennedy share the same last name, at times I refer to them by their first names for clarity.

“She was full of life … making him [RFK] enjoy life.”

Kerry Kennedy

Ethel is a 2012 documentary on the life of Ethel Skakel Kennedy, widow of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (RFK), and mother of eleven children. Directed by Ethel’s daughter and youngest child, Rory Kennedy, the film is an authentic portrait of Ethel’s character; she is altogether energetic, pious and wryly humorous. “She was full of life … making him [RFK] enjoy life,” said Kerry Kennedy.

Rory was still in her mother’s womb when her father was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in 1968. On the surface, Ethel appears to be a tribute to a past she never knew, with information compiled from family interviews and home photos and videos. Remarkably, the film wasn’t even Rory’s idea; Sheila Nevins (who runs HBO Documentary Films) had approached her to make the film. Rory was hesitant initially because the story is so personal to her, but the entire Kennedy family believed that Ethel had a story that should be told. Ethel is famously reticent and not one to reminisce, and has flatly rejected any suggestions to write a book. The film seemed a more promising venture with Rory directing it. Ethel surprisingly agreed.

I especially admire Ethel and RFK’s dedication to public service and social justice. RFK held several political roles in which he advocated for civil rights and against organized crime. In 1962, Ethel and RFK went on a goodwill tour together for the then President John F. Kennedy (JFK). Following RFK’s death, Ethel founded the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Centre (now known as Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights) to continue human rights advocacy in RFK’s name through awards and activism. Since the 1970s, Ethel has supported a variety of other social causes including gun control and poverty reduction.

In 2013 the Television Academy nominated Ethel for numerous Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards (Outstanding Cinematography for a Nonfiction Program; Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special; Outstanding Picture Editing for a Nonfiction Program; and Outstanding Writing for a Nonfiction Programming) and one Primetime Emmy Award (Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming). Although it didn’t win any awards, Ethel clearly rose to the level of outstanding merit.

Watch Ethel on Hulu (must have the HBO Max™ added on), HBO, HBO Max, or purchase on DVD.

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