Keith Maitland’s TOWER follow up is an empathetic look at one man’s quest to give away a fortune
In 1970, for just over a week, Michael Brody Jr. was at the center of a national fervor. Brody Jr., whose mother passed away when he was a toddler, grew up under the care of his father who, in turn, left much of the actual responsibilities of raising a child to housekeepers. Michael grew up as a happy, but lonely boy. A guy who just wanted to make the world a better place. So, on January 10th, 1970 he announced his intention to give away $25 million dollars. Within days, his home was flooded with letters from around the country with people pleading their cases for financial assistance. By January 19th of that same year Michael’s aspirations came to a crashing halt. Three years later Michael would take his own life. He was 24 years old.
Michael is the enigmatic figure at the center of Keith Maitland’s new documentary Dear Mr. Brody, a captivating document of a long-ago event and the reverberations that are still felt today. In light of Michael’s promise, he received tens of thousands of letters to his home and office in New York. People gathered everywhere Michael and his wife Renee went. One desperate man even broke into their home and demanded money at gunpoint before Michael talked the guy down and cut him a check.
As the heir to the Jelke oleomargarine fortune, Michael had plenty of money to spare. While the logistics of his promise would quickly overwhelm him, the letters kept coming. These letters form the emotional crux of Dear Mr. Brody. Maitland and his producer Melissa Glassman, who found a trove of unopened correspondence with a movie producer once tied to Michael, set about opening the letters and reaching out to the writers or their descendants. It’s the proverbial message in a bottle, cast out in a moment of desperation and curiosity, washing ashore decades later.
Most of the letters range from desperate parents looking to keep the lights on, to people looking for a little support for their dreams, and everything in between. While people with less than altruistic motives undoubtedly hit up Michael, Dear Mr. Brody spends its time on more sincere matters. There’s Bruce, a Black man from South Carolina who wanted to open a salon big enough to offer services to people of all ethnicities and bring his community together. A mother and daughter wrote about needing help escaping an abusive home. There are people glimpsing a side of their parents they would have never seen otherwise. To hear these people reflect on the letters from the time they were written and how they resonate today is almost like a time machine. It’s holding a memory in your hand, taking something ephemeral and making it tangible.
Similar to Maitland’s previous film Tower, Dear Mr. Brody is an exercise in empathy and compassion. While the films are drastically different in content (Tower tells the story of survivors and witnesses of the 1966 shooting at the University of Texas), there are similar themes that tie the works together. Both films are about impulsive actions that unite strangers for the rest of their lives. Michael is most commonly described as a hippie, and it’s clear that he struggled with substance abuse and mental health, but Maitland doesn’t try to psychoanalyze him or search for a motive. He’s more interested in the people who answered Michael’s call and their stories.
When asked why he wanted to give away his money, Michael said, “because people need it more than I do.” Michael’s humanitarian aspirations were too big for what he could deliver, but that sense of generosity permeates Dear Mr. Brody and makes it worth seeking out.