November 20, 2018

‘BlacKkKlansman’ and Jewish Identity

Screenshot from Youtube

Movies are meant to be escapism, but in Spike Lee’s new film, “BlacKkKlansman,” there is no escaping. Lee is actively trying to blur the line between cinematic reality and our own.

The film tells the story of African-American police officer Ron Stallworth, who, with the help of a white colleague, in infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. This powerhouse of a film is a rendering of real-life events in the 1970s, but with Klan members talking about “America first” and “Making America great again,” the references are about as subtle as tiki torches on the streets of Charlottesville, Va. This film intentionally calls in the modern era and the state of racism and anti-Semitism in the age of President Donald Trump. And the film, based on Stallworth’s 2014 nonfiction book of the same name, also contains some fascinating insights on Jewish identity. (Warning: This column contains a few spoilers.)

While Stallworth handles the phone conversations with the Klan, he must rely on Flip Zimmerman, a white detective, to stand in for him in person at Klan meetings. In a short monologue, Zimmerman says he was born Jewish but not raised to be Jewish, that his experience contained no synagogues or bar mitzvahs or holiday observances. In fact, he never thought about being Jewish at all until his under-cover assignment. Now, he says, he “can’t stop thinking about it.”

Anti-Semitism can become a crucible that forges Jewish identity and awakens the Jew within. Zimmerman is now aware. Even though the Klan members hate Jews, he can “pass” in a way Stallworth can’t. He hadn’t seen the Klan as an immediate threat because his Jewishness was invisible, at most moments, even to himself. But now he realizes the danger is very real, not just to people of color, but to himself and others.

But Zimmerman was invented for the film. In an interview with Filmmaker magazine, one of the lm’s screenwriters, David Rabinowitz, said they made the character Jewish to heighten the stakes, and, “on top of that, we’re [he and co-writer Charlie Wachtel] both Jewish.”

At one point in the film, Stallworth goes to hear civil rights activist Kwame Ture, who riles up a crowd of African-American students using the words of Hillel the Elder as a call to action: “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”

Remembering the agenda of “BlacKkKlansman” — to share Stallworth’s story while reminding audiences of the story unfolding now outside the theater — the message is clear. The chants of “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville and the proliferation of online hate, including social media trolling by neo-Nazis and white supremacists, have reminded us that racism and anti-Semitism are still alive and well in America. The release of the film was intentionally scheduled for the first anniversary of the events in Charlottesville, including the death of activist Heather Heyer. Now is a time for empowerment and justice for ourselves. Empowerment and justice for others. And action immediately, in this moment.

Never has this been more true. We need to find our ways into other people’s stories. And we need to do it now. Because if we only act when we ourselves are the most active or most visible targets of hatred, we play into the hands of racists who count on complacency to help them move their agendas forward. Lee’s movie — entertaining in parts, starkly somber in others — may not be a vacation from reality, but it’s a well-crafted, important statement about where we are and perhaps a warning of what we might become, if we continue on this path.

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a contributing writer to the Jewish Journal.

Top 6 Things You Don’t Know About LADY BIRD

“Lady Bird” has garnered a lot of attention as a well-made coming of age story set in 2002.  Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, it captures the mother-daughter relationship without a singe misstep.

The movie stars Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein, Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalamet.

A lot has been written about this multiple Oscar nominated film, but here are 6 things you don’t know about “Lady Bird”:


–>Keep in touch with the author on Twitter and Instagram @realZoeHewitt.  Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

SUBURBICON *Movie Review*

“Suburbicon” is a film of broad-stroke social commentary that uses the concurrent experiences two families to reflect on society’s biases.

For a more in-depth examination of “Suburbicon”, take a look below:

–>Keep in touch with the author on Twitter and Instagram @realZoeHewitt.  Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

All film photos are courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

VICTORIA AND ABDUL *Star Interview and Full Review*

Judi Dench has played so many queens that she should be honorary British royalty.  In Victoria & Abdul, the time period is 1887 and Queen Victoria (Dench) is floundering.  The most powerful woman in the world, she languishes from personal loss, sleeps through her own banquets and suffers the indignity of reporting her bowel movements.

Enter Abdul (Ali Fazal)–literally.  He’s honored with the job of presenting a ceremonial Indian coin to Queen Victoria alongside Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), a last-minute fill in who wants nothing to do with the task.  Following an arduous journey from India, the pair receive strict instructions about protocol.  They are props just as much as the coin.

After giving Queen Victoria the coin and backing away as etiquette dictates, Abdul breaks convention and locks eyes with the monarch.  A tense moment ensues: how will she react?  Declaring him handsome, the queen decides both men should stay and thus marks the beginning of their relationship over the final 15 years of the queen’s life.

The chemistry between Dench and Fazal is integral to the course of the film and the pair’s on-screen ambiguous relationship.  Why exactly is Queen Victoria so taken with Abdul, whom she elevates from servant to teacher/advisor over the course of their years together?  Is it a matter of physical attraction or something more?

There’s a beautiful moment in the film when the queen and Abdul dance together on the verandah.  An interview with Fazal reveals the words were scripted, but the action was not.  He says director Stephen Frears asked them to dance while saying their lines, a move that results in Fazal beginning by reaching out rather gracelessly–an entirely real moment that appears in the final cut of the film.

What didn’t make it into the film?  Dench and Fazal slapping their faces as a multitude of mosquitoes swarm them in a boat.  Fazal says even coming from a country like India where the pests are everywhere, these were intolerable.  The scene with the boat remains in the film, though Fazal can’t help but laugh in memory at the outtakes.

For more about Victoria & Abdul directly from Ali Fazal, along with a discussion about themes and symbolism in the film, take a look below:

—>Keep in touch with the author on Twitter and Instagram @realZoeHewitt.  Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

All film photos are courtesy of Focus Features.

THE LAST WORD *Movie Review & Director Interview*

In THE LAST WORD, a retired businesswoman named Harriet (Academy Award winner Shirley MacLaine) confronts her mortality as she sculpts her own obituary.  Harriet targets Anne (Amanda Seyfried), a reporter, to distill her life into its final success story.  The pair take a metaphorical–and literal–journey with Brenda (newcomer Ann’Jewel Lee), a pre-teen who has as much to gain from the relationship as the other two.  The movie also stars Thomas Sadowski, Anne Heche, Philip Baker Hall and Tom Everett Scott.  Mark Pellington (ARLINGTON ROAD, THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES, COLD CASE) directs.  

I spoke with director Mark Pellington about symbolism and themes in THE LAST WORD.  He sees the film as a study in mortality and what each of us leave behind at the end of our lives.  Pellington says:  “I want these characters to have suffered some degree of loss, yet I don’t want it to be through death.  I want them to be left alone in that they’re searching to become a little more whole, a little more complete.”

Harriet, Ann and Brenda come together as incomplete sides of the same coin.  Each is missing a specific person in their lives within the parent/child relationship, but lacks in other important ways, too.  For example, Harriet appreciates the qualities about Brenda with which she herself identifies.  However, these are the very characteristics she regrets in herself having let them rule her life.  Brenda’s ability to say anything and stick up for herself are laudable, though without a measure of regulation they will overtake her life the same way they have Harriet’s.

The women’s evolution is emphasized during a baptismal scene of cleansing as they go for a late-night swim.  Traditional film analysis looks at water from this perspective, and Pellington does as well.  “By the end, for her to take off her clothes, to let it go, to get messy is a change she was ready to go through because she had achieved these goals of seeing herself differently,” he explains.

The film shows that evolution is possible regardless of age or temperament and nothing is a replacement for personal connection.  Isolation comes in many forms.  The first shot of Harriet is standing in a dormer window looking out at the grounds of her home.  Ann sits in isolation, blaring loud music on her massive headphones, though she’s surrounded by coworkers.  Even Brenda’s first interaction sets her apart as she battles a recreation center supervisor.

The complicated relationship among the trio becomes an unexpected friendship in this coming-of-age story.  True to life, it is sometimes impossible to realize something is missing until you’re confronted by it.

For more about THE LAST WORD, including Shirley MacLaine’s thoughts on labeling women in Hollywood, take a look below:

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

‘The Barkley Marathons’: Oh, how the many have fallen

Rat Jaw.

Testicle Spectacle.

Son of a Bitch Ditch.

The Bad Thing.

These are some of the obstacles that participants in the little-known Barkley Marathons can expect to encounter. Hunger Games, eat your heart out.

With its legacy and rich history virtually untapped, discovering the tradition of the Barkley Marathons was like hitting the jackpot for first-time filmmakers Annika Iltis and Tim Kane. So after they found a story in Believer Magazine about the 2011 race, they knew they had to move quickly to make the 2012. Seven weeks later, Iltis and Kane were on their way to Frozen Head State Park and home of the Barkley, camera crew in tow. 

Iltis, who grew up in Chicago and was bat mitzvahed at a Conservative synagogue, has lived in L.A. since 2001 and had been working with Kane as a camera assistant in film, TV and commercials for many years. Heading their own project hadn’t been on the immediate to-do list, but after wrapping on the fifth season of “Mad Men,” an opportunity presented itself that was too good to pass up. The result is their directorial debut, “The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats its Young.” 

Once a year, distance runners from around the world descend on a small town in eastern Tennessee to race through miles of vast, unmarked terrain, in temperatures below freezing, guided only by a compass and directions as ambiguous as “Go left at the tree with three stumps.” Dehydrated and prone to hallucination, their heels are more blister than sole after climbing thousands of feet uphill and fending off forest briars that threaten to flay their skin clear off. 

The real-world story behind the founding of the Barkley could be its own movie. The year was 1977, and James Earl Ray, the man serving a 99-year sentence for killing Martin Luther King Jr., had escaped from Tennessee’s Brushy Mountain State Prison. He and six inmates pulled off an elaborate plan involving a staged fight as a diversion, a makeshift ladder concocted from plumbing supplies … and a run for it. 

Ray didn’t last long. Authorities found him 54 hours later about eight miles away. His cohorts didn’t fare any better.

Ray’s paltry escape performance caught the attention of Gary Cantrell, who goes by the pseudonym Lazarus Lake. Why the short distance? If he’d had nearly 60 hours at his disposal, Lake thought to himself, he could have gone at least 100 miles. Thus the Barkley Marathons was born, with the inaugural race in 1986. It’s considered by many to be the hardest race in the world — when Iltis and Kane started filming in 2012, only 10 people had ever finished.

Participants have 60 hours to complete five loops. The first three comprise the “Fun Run” — the conquest of a lifetime by any standard. After five loops, the distance in elevation is equivalent to hiking up and down Mount Everest. Twice. 

Finishing one loop brings the runners back to home base, where they can dress their bloody legs, bandage their abscessed feet, and restock on supplies before setting out again.

But returning to camp after each loop also poses a psychological dilemma, one of the Barkley’s many. It demands equal parts mental and physical strength, and deciding to subject oneself to the mountainous elements five separate times is often as difficult as the elements themselves.

The loops are 20 miles each, although runners swear they’re closer to 26 (thus “the marathons”). One of the locals sums it up in the film perfectly when he says, “The most correct answer is that it’s 20 miles, and it’s 26 miles.” Keeping the distance ambiguous plays into the Barkley’s mental trickery, and is another curious rule of engagement imparted on the runners by the race’s equally curious co-founder, all in the spirit of competition.

“You can’t accomplish anything without the possibility of failure,” Lake says in the film. “You like to see people have the opportunity to figure out something about themselves.”

For the hundreds who apply each year, Lake assigns an essay on why they should be one of the 35 chosen to join the ranks of that year’s Barkley Marathoners. The entry fee is $1.60. With one 60-mile race and one 100-mile race — that comes to a penny a mile. Lake could charge 300 times that, but for him, money provides little incentive. Should the race fall during a time he’s low on socks, he’ll charge a pair of socks. The satisfaction he derives from the marathons is rooted in painful self-improvement and testing the limits of the human condition. 

“We wanted Laz and the race to be a main character,” Iltis said. “It’s really a special thing that came together. He’s an amazing person … we never wanted to turn off the cameras.”

With names like Lazarus Lake and Raw Dog — Lake’s business partner — the founders of the race reflect the grizzly nature of the beast they created. But in addition to Lake’s infectiously dark humor, what becomes clear as the film goes on is how, for all his twisted interpretations of what healthy competition looks like, he has a prophetic method to his madness: “Most people, by the time they’re finished with the ordeal, really are not concerned about how other people evaluate their performance,” he says. “They make their own judgments about success and failure.” 

Despite Lake liking a low profile, Iltis said he was on board with the documentary from the beginning. She and Kane had a mutual understanding with and sincere respect for Lake and his community, which comes through in the film’s sophistication. As far as needing to guide a narrative structure for essentially the first time, they didn’t fall into traps so common with first-time filmmakers. They don’t drum up drama where there needn’t be and their presence in the film is nearly undetectable. They let the subject and its characters speak for themselves. “This was never going to be an exposé,” Iltis said. “The most important part was to maintain respect, to be inspiring without getting rid of the secrecy.”

Iltis said her faith played a big part in connecting her to the Barkley Marathons, its community and its tradition. “Judaism was a huge part of growing up, and helped lay the foundation for that community aspect that really comes through in the Barkley,” she said.

“People go out there to find out more about themselves, and that becomes something beyond a physical thing.”

“The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats its Young” recently concluded its theatrical run at the Downtown Independent in Los Angeles, and is now available on VOD and various platforms.

Faith, not just gayness, informs filmmaker’s works

This has been a good year for filmmaker Ira Sachs. His new feature, “Keep the Lights On,” received a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and won the prestigious Teddy Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. And while the intensely personal, autobiographical film centers on a tumultuous love affair between two men, Sachs believes audiences will relate to the human experience of relationships shared by all couples.

During a phone interview from his New York City home, Sachs attributed his ability for universal affinity to his cultural heritage. “I feel that I live and breathe my Judaism as an individual, and it is how I connect to people here every day.”    

Sachs has been living in Manhattan since 1987, but his roots stem from the Deep South city of Memphis, Tenn., where he was raised in what he described as a Reform Jewish household. 

“My maternal side was German Jews who came to Memphis in 1850, and, on my father's side, Eastern Europeans who came in 1900; two major Southern immigration times for Jews, so I grew up in a mixed Jewish family,” he said.  

Sachs also points to the era of social change, in which he grew up, as an influence on his formative years. 

“I was in Memphis in the '60s, and that was obviously a very complicated time,” he explained. “One of the things about growing up Jewish in the South was there was a lot of assimilation going on among Southern Jews. And one of the things that did was create a greater interest in social action there. For example, there was a great connection between our rabbi and the civil rights movement, so I've always been interested in how people live and how difference is a part of one's experience. And growing up in the South as a Jewish person, and as a gay person, I think there were certain ways in which the two identities would overlap because it was a place in which I was an outsider. But I felt more of an outsider being gay.”

Keep the Lights On” target=”_blank”>

Paris is not always for lovers in edgy film comedy ‘2 Days in Paris’

In Julie Delpy’s edgy comic film, “2 Days in Paris,” a French expatriate and her American Jewish lover travel to Paris in an attempt to revive their stagnant relationship. Instead, they find that the cultural differences only exacerbate their problems.

Jack (Adam Goldberg) won’t take the subway, for fear of a Muslim terrorist attack; Marion (Delpy) insists that France is terror-free. Jack hates Marion’s leering ex-boyfriends; Marion thinks their blatant sexual advances are no big deal. The lovers meet one cabbie who is anti-Semitic, and various others who hate gays, Romanians, women and Arabs. At a party, one of the leering ex’s calls Jack a “happy, hairy Jew” — even though Jack says he is technically non-Jewish because his mother is Catholic. The ex retorts that Hitler would not have hesitated to put him in a concentration camp, nor would any of the French partiers getting drunk in that very room. “I never liked camp,” Jack replies, aghast.

Critics have compared the characters to those from the early films of Woody Allen. If Delpy, 37, comes off as a French version of Annie Hall (even in person at the W Hotel, she is so anxious that she picks at her fingernails), Goldberg is like a hipster version of Allen, always beleaguered — yet covered in tattoos. Delpy, who previously starred in and co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for the romantic dramedy “Before Sunset,” says she intended “Paris” to be “meaner and more politically incorrect” than her previous romantic comedies. She says she wrote the role of Jack specifically for Goldberg, who also has a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, and who is best known for playing Jewish characters in films such as “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Hebrew Hammer.”

“I created the role for Adam because he has a sad clown quality, and I needed an actor who looks funny when he gets upset,” she adds. “The more he suffers, and the more he is terrorized by his environment, the funnier he is. I needed the character to be in pain constantly, because as Jack says in the film, ‘Paris is hell!'” Delpy quickly adds that she loves Paris, but that the residents “can be very tough on visitors — and I feel their pain.”

While the movie focuses on the dissolution of a relationship involving two cerebral yet very different people, it also pokes fun at what Delpy calls “the casual nature of French anti-Semitism and racism.”

She says that some French observers have taken offense at her movie, because she is herself an expatriate living in West Hollywood who dares to critique France. In response, she insists that she is an equal opportunity offender. Her own character is ditzy and callous, and Jack comes off as a person “who is a man first of all, before being Jewish or intellectual.

“He is driven by his penis and his jealousy and his instinct, which is that Marion is his female, his property, the vessel that will carry his genes one day. And that is the most basic thing, beyond any culture or religion.”

The film opens Aug. 10 in Los Angeles.

The ‘2 Days in Paris’ trailer

On screen, Danny Pearl’s story astounds

As the credits rolled after a preview screening of the docudrama, “A Mighty Heart,” the audience, consisting of a small group of film critics, sat in stunned silence.

The reaction was the more remarkable since everyone already knew the ultimate outcome — the execution-style murder of American Jewish Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl by Islamic extremists in Karachi, which shocked the world five years ago.

Yet the film’s tension ratchets up relentlessly as a combined Pakistani-American team tries to track down clue after misleading clue for 28 days to identify Pearl’s kidnappers and save his life.

At the center of the chaotic rescue attempts portrayed in the film is Pearl’s visibly pregnant Dutch-Cuban-Jewish wife, Mariane, a strong, smart and self-possessed woman and a journalist herself, played by Angelina Jolie.

In some of the more restrained recent media coverage during her long-running romance with partner Brad Pitt, the 32-year- old Jolie has been described as “the hottest film actress on the planet” and “the most beautiful woman in the world.” It would have been easy, but fatal, to turn “A Mighty Heart” into a star vehicle for Jolie, portraying an expectant mother on an emotional roller-coaster in an exotic setting, but British director Michael Winterbottom and Jolie herself have eluded the trap.

Somewhat disguised by a prosthetic belly, curly wig and nondescript clothes, Jolie, who earlier earned her acting credentials with her Oscar-winning performance in “Girl, Interrupted,” submerges herself into the role of Mariane.

In a necessarily smaller part as Daniel Pearl, screenwriter (“Capote”) and actor Dan Futterman, appearing mainly in flashbacks, not only bears a pronounced physical resemblance to the then 38-year-old reporter, but also conveys his easy charm and wit.

Director Winterbottom (“The Road to Guantanamo”) proves again his mastery of the cinema verite style, deftly jump-cutting from domestic scenes to chaotic street pursuits to actual news footage, and relieving the tension with episodes from the Pearls’ courtship and Buddhist-Jewish wedding.

The recurring centerpiece of the movie is a large, erasable chart, in which the oddly mixed team from the Pakistani police, FBI and American consulate tries to connect the dots between an ever-changing cast of suspects and informers.

Eventually, the board resembles a combination of D-Day invasion plans with a particularly intricate offensive play diagramed by a football coach on steroids.

“A Mighty Heart” is based closely on the book of the same title by Mariane Pearl (with Sarah Crichton), and unfolds from her perspective. We see and learn little of the agonies and actions of Daniel’s parents, Judea and Ruth Pearl, holed up in their Encino home and besieged by reporters outside.

The parents and Danny’s two sisters are seen mainly in brief phone calls to Mariane, with the Israel-born father saddled with an unidentifiable and exaggerated accent.

The elder Pearls do not seem upset by the subordinate role. “Our main hope is that the film will encourage viewers to learn more about Danny’s life and work,” Judea Pearl said. To that end, the family has established the Daniel Pearl Foundation to promote understanding among different cultures and religions.

Featured characters in the film include the lead Pakistani investigator (Irrfan Khan), Asra Nomani (Archie Panjabi), Mariane’s closest female friend, an American security officer (Will Patton) and Wall Street Journal editor John Bussey (Denis O’Hare). The screenplay is by John Orloff (“Band of Brothers”) and Brad Pitt is a co-producer of the Paramount Vantage release.

Parts of the book have been deleted from the 108-minute long film, including friend Asra’s tortured love affair, and some aspects of The Wall Street Journal’s handling of the case.

While the newspaper’s editors went all-out to protect Pearl during his captivity (such as persuading the media not to divulge that he was a Jew), the film omits Mariane’s lengthy charge that the Wall Street Journal failed to heed her husband’s earlier pleas to take steps to protect journalists in dangerous parts of the world.

The movie performs a signal service to the battered reputation of journalists, long portrayed on screen as either swaggering devil-may-care boozers or unscrupulous hustlers. By contrast, Daniel Pearl, in life as on screen, emerges as a deeply conscientious, highly perceptive and hard-digging reporter. He is also shown as a romantic, sensitive suitor and husband, which may not be characteristic of all newsmen.

Although four men were quickly convicted in a Pakistani court shortly after the January 2002 kidnap-murder, their cases are still on appeal, and new alleged accomplices continue to keep the Pearl case in the headlines.

In early June, Pakistani police arrested two earlier suspects who, police say, are linked to Pearl’s kidnapping and death.

In March, the Pentagon released a partial transcript of an interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged Al Qaeda mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attack, and now held by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay.

According to the transcript, Mohammed proudly proclaimed that he had personally beheaded Pearl, boasting, “I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl.”

Also in this issue: Tom Tugend interviews actor Dan Futterman and director Michael Winterbottom