Blacks And Jews
Call me an ecumenical sentimentalist, but if there's a speck of hope for this earth it's the unexpected moment in the must-see Blacks & Jews when a darkly garbed Brooklyn Hasid gives a hearfelt bearhug to the African-American man who saved his life during the Crown Heights riots.
Of course, Isaac Bitton turns out to be no ordinary entrenched Hasid. He's an ex-hippie musician from Morocco. And Peter Noel, the rescuer, is no street-corner proselytizer; he's a reporter for the Village Voice. Still, how genuinely nice that they've become cross-race friends! Otherwise, Blacks & Jews (made with great urgency by Northern Californian Jewish directors, Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow, and an African-American cinematographer, Ashley James) is a glum, troubling documentary of division, prejudice, cultural ignorance, and racism on every side.
In Chicago, coalition-building Jewish organizers are blasphemed by bigots in the synagogue, "Why do you want to have anything to do with black people? They hate us!" In Brooklyn, a Chasid stupidly lectures at disenfranchised blacks about how, under Mayor Dinkins, they (the Other) get all the city services.
In an Oakland moviehouse, African-American high-schoolers chortle at the Schindler's List murder of Jews by the Nazis."A lot of us didn't know the Holocaust was a true story," explains a student. "That's why we laughed." There's Louis Farrakhan, orator to the one million: "The Jews don't like me. They didn't like Jesus Christ!" And a cocky Muslim pretending to address Jews before Howard University students: "You say you lost 6 million, and I question that."
Blacks & Jews shows some attempts at rainbow harmony in the 90s: a Chasid and African-American teen rap street theatre in Brooklyn, role-playing games in San Francisco, scenes from anti-racist theater. But these goodwilled gropings for interracial understanding are so meagre that they're almost depressing. As the filmmakers explain in voice-over, "They cannot replace the close political coalitions of the civil rights era."
If Blacks & Jews has an agenda it's a call to resuscitate social consciousness and political commitment, those times of struggle when, on a righteous day, blacks and Jews marched, sat in, and freedom rode on the same side. Recreating history Eyes on the Prize-fashion, the film locates a stirring model for activism in late '60s Chicago, showing how the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, led by a militant Rabbi Robert Marx, fought both the profiteering banks (non-Jewish) and greedy real estate dealers (mostly Jewish)ripping off poor black people wanting to buy a home.
Another section of Blacks & Jews follows Chicago African-American journalist and ex-Muslim Salaam Muwakill as he covers the Million Man March and explains the undeniable appeals of Islam to many ghetto blacks. I'm glad to see Muwakill in the spotlight. He's one of America's most significant social commentators. Only he would dare call Farrakhan "Jerry Falwell in blackface" and, in a wonderful article for In These Times, blame the death of Chicago's Mayor Harold Washington on his too-typical-for-blacks high-cholestoral diet.
The most ambitious section of Blacks and Jews delves behind the scenes at Oakland's Castlemont High School, site of that infamous class trip to see Schindler's List. The Jewish filmmakers are clearly sympathetic to the black students, who were not educated in any way at school for a movie about the Holocaust. Steven Spielberg comes up from LA, addresses a school assembly, and saves the day. "I believe Castlemont High got a bad rap," he tells the cheering, vindicated students. "I was thrown out of Ben Hur for talking."
(Boston Phoenix, November, 1997)