Tense Alliance

A conversation with the makers of Blacks and Jews, a highlight of the 17th annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

Alan Snitow: We had never quite realized how universal this replacement was, of Jews moving out and blacks moving into city neighborhoods. From Brooklyn and Harlem to Mattapan and Roxbury in Boston -- in every major northern city the replacement was blacks moving into Jewish neighborhoods. It's a universal story. And Jewish-black proximity has had a creative history, in music, literature, theater, the labor movement -- radical black-Jewish culture has been a major creative force, and it was partially due to the rubbing of shoulders from early in the century in Harlem. One black real estate agent told us that he "couldn't think of a single incident in which Jews attacked blacks for moving into their community." If they moved into a Polish, Italian, or Irish community, he said, people feared for their lives, but with Jews he couldn't think of a single instance. The downside was the whites that black people saw where they were moving into these neighborhoods, the shopkeepers and landlords and speculators, were very often Jews. As a black, you could respect somebody who was the only person hiring you, but you could resent being the employee and being exploited; on the other hand, as a Jew in this context, you could appreciate someone being an employee, and resent them for all the reasons employers resent employees -- because they're not responsible or they don't work hard enough.

Kaufman: Lawndale was heavily covered and was a major civil rights battle in Chicago, but, apart from an NBC story, it didn't get a lot of national play. And our interpretation was different. We wanted to get at this internal battle within the Jewish community between those who supported the activists and those who didn't or actively opposed them. A lot of people know about SNCC demanding that whites and Jews leave the organization. But I don't think a lot of people know about the forces in the Jewish community (and the Catholic community and the other communities) that demanded the end of the civil rights coalition on the white side. That's the radical nature of our retelling of that story.

Snitow: It also means that your own community is an arena; you have to go through some struggle inside, to reach the point where coalition is possible.

Sragow: When did you know that you'd end the film with the controversy over black and Latino students from Castlemont High in Oakland disrupting a screening of Schindler's List? [During a field trip on Martin Luther King Day in 1994, they were ejected from the Grand Lake Theater for laughing during scenes of Nazi atrocities.]

Kaufman: The Schindler's List thing happened right here in our back yard while we were already making the film. We couldn't have known that Governor Pete Wilson and Steven Spielberg were going to come to Castlemont, but here was this story that illustrated our themes of media stereotypes and media manipulation of concepts; what we were reading was reducing the story to "black teen-agers," when we knew there was a more complicated story that we wanted to follow, finding out early that there were all these Jews that worked in the school.

Sragow: You interview a male Jewish staff member, who agrees with a black female colleague about the essential innocence of the kids, and is trying so hard to be understanding and liberal. Yet at one point he has to split with her and object to Afrocentrists coming into the school and saying Jews controlled the slave trade.

Kaufman: It was a powerful moment.
Sragow: How did you end up feeling about Spielberg? [The director eventually visits Castlemont on a healing mission.] The kids appear to take him as this generic American success figure. And it's hard to read Spielberg's response when the student body president attacks Wilson for riding his coattails.

Kaufman: You know, Spielberg contributed to Pete Wilson but he also gave to Kathleen Brown -- he gave more to Brown, more and earlier. The other thing that's not in the film is that Spielberg came back to the school after this incident with the demand that there be absolutely no publicity, press, or media and sat in the library, not in the auditorium where kids would be forced to go, and anyone who wanted to could voluntarily go and hang out with him in the library for one hour. He sat and he talked to the kids and we heard great things about it. He sat and gave kids autographed posters of Jurassic Park, which meant a lot to them. I think he acted very decently; I think he wanted to correct whatever had happened as a result of Wilson's appearance.

Snitow: When Spielberg says the Castlemont incident should be put under the category of "the privileges of youth" [Spielberg even recalls being tossed out of Ben-Hur when he was a kid], the phrase he uses was in many respects the phrase we were thinking of to figure out what was going on there.

Sragow: As I watched your film again, it struck me that it was really about the failure of identity politics, of politics based only on race or religion or gender.

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