Documentaries Now

What inspired entertainment attorney Robert Darwell to get behind the camera?

Published in 2024 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine

By Trevor Kupfer on January 9, 2024

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Robert Darwell has provided legal services on hundreds of films over the years—including Brokeback Mountain, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Traffic—but that wasn’t what led him to become a documentarian himself.

“Most often I’m production counsel—meaning hiring the actors, the director, acquiring the rights to the project,” says Darwell, an entertainment attorney and head of Sheppard Mullin’s global media department. His work is primarily transactional, including serving as lead counsel to Comcast in its acquisition of NBC Universal in 2011, and he was never schooled in filmmaking. His education there amounted to watching a 26-part Ken Burns MasterClass.

So what led him to direct and produce The 90s Club, which involved interviewing a dozen nonagenarians during the pandemic?

“Over the past decade,” Darwell says, “there’s been a lot of attention and social justice focus for a number of different groups—all well deserved and well needed—but it seemed one group still wasn’t quite getting that: the well-aged people. They have wisdom to share and life experience that can be beneficial to everyone.”

The topic was also personal. “I’ve been getting older and starting to think, ‘How do I want my later years to look?’ So I thought, ‘I’m going to talk to some people and get some guidance.’”

Darwell spent two to three hours with each subject, including actor Dick Van Dyke, photographer Tony Vaccaro, Cuban refugee Juana Gloria Herrera, and drag queen Walter Cole. He conducted the interviews while local talent operated the camera. Later, he worked with an editor to cut the 40 hours of footage into an 90-minute runtime. “The editing part was my favorite,” he says. “As a transactional lawyer, we’re kind of natural editors in terms of revising agreements and making sure the words are precise, so I think those skills translated well.”

In 2022, The 90s Club screened at more than 20 festivals and won several awards; it’s currently on Prime.

“Not having had the experience in filmmaking, my goal was to be in any film festival and have somebody see it on a screen,” Darwell says. “To be in a couple dozen film festivals, and then at some of them to even win prizes, it still seems pretty unbelievable to me.”

His latest documentary, Black Uniform, features 12 Black veterans who served from WWII to the present day—including former Congressman Charles Rangel and 103-year-old Romay Davis, one of few surviving members of the only Black female battalion sent overseas during WWII: the “Six Triple Eight.” Tyler Perry recently made a Netflix movie about them starring Kerry Washington.

“She’s impressive,” Darwell says of Davis. “A very good storyteller, and so hardworking all her life. I mean, everyone was pretty impressive. Janina Simmons was the first Black woman to become an Army Ranger, and just her confidence, her drive—you can definitely get caught up in her spirit. She says, ‘I might not come in first in everything, but I’ll be the hardest-working person in the room.’”

The film covers the unique challenges Black members of the military face—historically and today. It’s a topic that Darwell came upon during his last interview for The 90s Club: famed civil rights attorney Fred Gray, who, in one of his first cases, represented Rosa Parks during the Montgomery bus boycott.

“I was thinking of something related to my father, who served during the Korean War. We never talked about it, so I thought, ‘I’d like to do something on veterans from World War II to today,’” Darwell recalls. “Then [Gray] talked about his experience with the draft and the challenges he encountered, and I thought, ‘Veterans from the ’40s to today is pretty broad. I should focus on people of color.’”

Darwell is currently mulling ideas for his next project.

“I was going to do a third and final one—using this style of interviewing 12 different people—focused on former Miss Americas from the ’40s to present. I want to call it Crowning Achievement,” he says. “I’m also thinking about how public swimming pools are disappearing across America, and the role they played when I was a kid.”

He remains busy in his practice so there’s no rush. In fact, he’s reminded of something Gray told him in their interview. “I asked him about what he likes to do for fun and he said, ‘Oh my wife keeps asking me about that. Maybe when I retire I’ll have to start focusing on it.’”


Darwell’s Favorite Doc

Herb and Dorothy (2008). “He was a postal carrier his whole life, she was a schoolteacher. The documentary focuses on them in their 70s as they go to various galleries, befriending people like Jackson Pollock. In their tiny New York apartment, they collected this amazing collection of works that would be worth millions of dollars. But they lived very modestly, and they wound up ultimately donating the collection to the National Gallery of Art.”

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