Julia Reichert, the Oscar-winning filmmaker and activist for over 50 years, has died at the age of 76.
Reichert was born in New Jersey and was an early social activist before becoming a filmmaker with her first documentary, Growing Up Female, which she co-directed with Jim Klein. It was made for just $2,000 in 1971 and was the first documentary in the Women's Movement, covering the way women are socialized at different points in their lives. The film was so impactful, it was selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry in 2011.
From there, Reichert continued her activism and filmmaking, exploring race, class, and gender in America. Her third film, Union Maids, which she co-directed with Klein and Miles Mogulescu, documented three women who were union organizers during the Great Depression. Reichert received her first Oscar nomination for the film (Best Documentary Feature).
Reichert earned three more Oscar nominations, for 1983’s Seeing Red (Best Documentary Feature), a film on the political activities of the American Communist Party in the early to mid-twentieth century, for 2009's The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant (Best Documentary Short Subject), a short that looked at how the people of Moraine, Ohio were affected by the closing of their town's GM plant, and for 2019's American Factory (Best Documentary Feature), which documented the culture clash that took place when a Chinese company reopened a factory in Ohio. For American Factory, she and her co-director and partner Steven Bognar, won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.
Reichert's documentary work also earned her two Primetime Emmy Awards, and a Director’s Guild Award, and two Peabody award nominations. Among her other works are 9to5: The Story of A Movement, following the evolution of women in the workplace that led to the 1980 comedy 9 to 5, A Lion in the House, an 8-year in the making documentary about childhood cancer, and two of Dave Chappelle’s specials, 2020's 8:46 and 2021's Dave Chappelle: Live in Real Life.
On top of her extensive filmmaking career, Reichert was also a professor of film production at Dayton, Ohio’s Wright State University for 28 years, working with and mentoring students around the country.
Joe Deer, artistic director of the Wright State Theatre in the School of Fine and Performing Arts, said in a statement, "Julia Reichert is one of the most important and influential faculty members [Wright State University] has ever known… What makes her such an impactful educator and mentor is that she’s spent her life telling the stories of everyday, overlooked people with compassion and real appreciation for their dreams and struggles. And many of those stories are told in our own backyard — hospitals in Cincinnati, workers in Dayton, her neighbors in Yellow Springs. I’m personally so grateful for my years watching her work, talking about teaching, and just being inspired by her energy and vision.”
Reichert’s work has had a lasting impact on the world, chronicling the movements that have helped change America’s landscape, from labor, to women’s rights, to Black Lives Matter. She is rightfully considered a feminist and independent documentary icon for her tireless work in storytelling.
After first being diagnosed with late-stage lymphoma in 2006, Reichert successfully completed chemotherapy and was cancer-free. In 2018, she was diagnosed with urothelial cancer and, after being in and out of treatment for the past several years, including the run up to her Oscar win in 2020, she lost her fight to the disease.
In 2020, she spoke about her illness with NPR’s Terry Gross, saying, "Now that I’m coming toward the end of my life, it makes me want to focus on the things I didn’t get to do," including spending time with her daughter and grandchildren. She added, "Because all the films over 50 years, they exist."
She is survived by Bognar, daughter Lela Klein Holt, three brothers, and two grandchildren.
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