A Touch of Greatness

January 11, 2005


About the Documentary

You won’t find 10-year-old children reciting Shakespeare soliloquies, acting out the Cuban Missile Crisis, or performing Sophocles’s plays in most American classrooms today. But Albert Cullum’s elementary school students did all this and more. Combining interviews with Cullum and his former students with stunning archival footage filmed by director Robert Downey, Sr., A Touch of Greatness documents the extraordinary work of this maverick public school teacher who embraced creativity, motivation, and self-esteem in the classroom through the use of poetry, drama, and imaginative play.

Regarded by academics as one of the most influential educators of the 1960s and ’70s, Cullum championed what is, by today’s standards, an unorthodox educational approach. Cullum regularly taught his elementary school children literary masterpieces, exposed them to great works of art, and engaged them in the events of world history. Without leaving the classroom, his students visited King Tut’s tomb, attended joint sessions of the U.S. Congress, operated on “bleeding” nouns in his “grammar hospital,” and clamored to play the timeless roles of Julius Caesar, Lady Macbeth, and Hamlet.

Inspiring and joyous, A Touch of Greatness weaves footage from rare television broadcasts with lively, provocative comments from former students as they speak about how these experiences resonate in their lives today. A Touch of Greatness is a portrait of the lives transformed by a teacher who, with passion and aplomb, enabled a generation of children to embrace their own “heroic deeds” and inner greatness.

The Filmmakers

Leslie Sullivan
Sullivan has been the executive producer for two independent films, The Other Olympians and Because the Dawn. Funded by Canon, The Other Olympians focuses on physically disabled athletes and gained critical acclaim through its screening on PBS in 1989. Because the Dawn was shown at the Berlin and Toronto Film Festivals in 1988, and has become a cult favorite at independent art house theaters. From 1991 until 2001, Sullivan also served as the director of development for Poets House, a national literary center and poetry archive founded by U.S. Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz.

Sullivan first met Albert Cullum while she was studying to be a teacher at Stonehill College in Massachusetts. Meeting him was a life-changing experience for her because he radically altered her view of education.A Touch of Greatness is her directorial debut.

Catherine Gund
Gund, the founder of Aubin Pictures, is an Emmy Award-nominated producer, director, writer and organizer. Her media work—which focuses on arts and culture, HIV/AIDS and reproductive health, sexuality and gender and other social justice issues—has screened around the world in festivals and theaters, on PBS and cable television and at community-based organizations, universities and museums. Gund’s productions include Motherland Afghanistan, Making Grace, On Hostile Ground, Object Lessons, Hallelujah! Ron Athey: A Story of Deliverance, When Democracy Works, Positive: Life with HIV, Sacred Lies Civil Truths, Not Just Passing Through, Among Good Christian Peoples and Keep Your Laws Off My Body, as well as work with the collectives DIVA TV (as co-founder) and Paper Tiger Television. She was the founding director of BENT TV, the video workshop at the Hetrick-Martin Institute for queer youth. She lives in New York City with her partner Bruce Morrow and their four children.

Full Credits