Contemplating a Canon of Jewish American Films

“Liberty Heights,” set a short while later, looks at another Jewish family, the Kurtzmans, but is less insular. It occasionally, clumsily, explores a budding romance between their teenage son (Ben Foster) and a Black classmate (Rebekah Johnson) at his newly integrated school, unpacking the different variations of discrimination they encounter and the intolerance of their families.

The Coen brothers, true to form, go in a more philosophical direction, with their apocalyptic story of a Jewish professor in Minnesota, “A Serious Man” (2009). Opening with an anecdotal sequence featuring an evil spirit known as a dybbuk, the Coens couch their story — the existential quest of a schmuck (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose wife wants a ritual divorce known as a “get” — in folklore, though it’s set in 1967, uniting Jewish spirituality with a darkly comic look at Jewish existence in Middle America.

As for Gray and Spielberg, this is not the first time either director has made a film about Jews before. But their new dramas examine their own Jewish upbringings, even casting versions of themselves. To Goldman, it’s a sign of the times. “I think what you’re seeing is the change that we’ve been feeling since I would say 2015 and the sense of vulnerability that I would posit most American Jews did not feel prior to that,” he said in an interview. “I think that’s had a tremendous impact in terms of forcing artists in general, but filmmakers to look at themselves within a broad American society.”

In presenting similar-looking families about a generation apart, the two movies come to wildly different conclusions. Gray, an inherently more pessimistic filmmaker, indicts himself, viewing his nascent adolescence through the prism of a friendship between his stand-in, Paul (Banks Repeta), and a Black classmate, Johnny (Jaylin Webb).

Spielberg’s reaction to the antisemitism he encountered in his youth is messy but ultimately more hopeful. A teenage Sam Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) encounters bullies, but armed with a camera at Senior Ditch Day, he paints one of them as an Aryan dreamboat, a golden god. The jock is shaken. He doesn’t understand why Sam would do that, and Sam’s not so sure either, but Spielberg recognizes the power a camera has to change hearts with imagery.

Throughout his career Spielberg has constructed images that are synonymous with Americana — from Indiana Jones to suburban kids on bikes in “E.T.” In “The Fabelmans” he uses some of those same tricks. But the Fabelmans are not like every other all-American family. Their house is the only dark one on the block in New Jersey at Christmas time.

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