Documentary Explores Ethel Kennedy’s Personal Past

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 (a documentary filmmaker by trade), 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 interviews with her mother and siblings, and from 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 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 how Ethel and RFK fought for social justice throughout their lives. Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, RFK wrote some admirable advice in a letter to his eldest child, Kathleen Kennedy: “Be kind to others and work hard for your country.” Ethel has spent time fund-raising for the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization (formerly the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights) to benefit social justice causes.

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.

(Photographer not credited for photo of Ethel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

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