By Juan Ramirez
Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) dir. Elia Kazan
1947’s other “message film” to also deal with antisemitism was Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement, which took home Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress. Adapted by Kazan and Moss Hart from Laura Z. Hobson’s best-selling novel of the same name – which she wrote after learning a congressman’s racist tirade against Walter Winchell was met with applause by the House – the film concerns a journalist (Gregory Peck) who spends six months living as a Jew to expose antisemitism in New York for his liberal newsmagazine.
The movie was controversial from the start, with Samuel Goldwyn and other major Jewish producers of the time asking Daryl F. Zanuck, the movie’s producer, to stop production in fear of retaliation. Despite this, it became one of Twentieth Century Fox’s highest grossing films of the year and garnered eight Academy Award nominations in total. The film’s highly-politicized release led to the summoning of Kazan, Zanuck and two of the actors before the House Un-American Activities Committee and, conversely, to the honoring of Zanuck as “Man of the Year” by the B’nai B’rith International’s Hollywood chapter.
The Fixer (1968) dir. John Frankenheimer
Based on Bernard Malamud’s Pulitzer Prize-winner of the same name – which is, in turn, based on the real-life Beilis case – John Frankenheimer’s The Fixer, with its script by Dalton Trumbo, deals with the dangers of institutionalized hatred in a politically charged world. When a Christian boy is found dead in 1911 Kiev, a Jewish handyman, Yakov Bok, is arrested. Though he has no connection to the crime, the Tsarist government declares it a ritual killing, accusing Bok of seeking the boy’s blood for use during Passover and using the arrest to further their antisemitic agenda.
The film, though criticized for its simplistic and moralizing approach to a more complex novel and issue, is noteworthy for its portrayal of government-sanctioned antisemitism, a subject hardly ever broached. Still, despite Frankenheimer touching upon Russian politics in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Trumbo being intimately involved in McCarthy’s Red Scare, the two men never approach the material with the seriousness many felt it deserved, and the film’s message about the negligence of remaining apolitical in times of crisis went largely unseen.
School Ties (1992) dir. Robert Mandel
Best remembered as the film which gave Brendan Fraser, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Chris O’Donnell their first major roles, School Ties revolves around the hidden antisemitism simmering at a 1950s prep school. When a Jewish high school student (Fraser) accepts a football scholarship to an elite New England boarding school, he keeps his faith a secret after his coach advises him to play down his heritage among his WASP classmates. Soon enough, his secret becomes impossible to keep and he realizes his new friends harbor antisemitic thoughts, especially when a plagiarism accusation from a teacher threatens his academic success.
The film, though mostly buried under its stars’ later successes, was praised for its portrayal of prep schools of its day and for dealing with class issues in its exploration of Jewish identity. Its take on peer pressure as an insidious way of silencing minorities in the most innocuous of places gives School Ties an edge over other schoolhouse-set dramas of the day.
The Believer (2001) dir. Henry Bean
Loosely based on the life of Dan Burros, The Believer is a disturbing dive into the warped mind of a Jewish man who became a prominent member of both the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan. In it, a young New York yeshiva student (Ryan Gosling) strays from his Jewish background into Neo-Nazism through years of inner turmoil over what he perceives as weaknesses inherent in the religion. As he spends his years working for the organizations, his reputation grows until a reporter investigating terrorist groups threatens to publish the truth about his ancestry.
Due to its touchy subject matter, The Believer had a tough time reaching audiences. Premiering at Sundance (where it won the Grand Jury Prize), it failed to find major distribution until Showtime picked it up for television in 2002. Certain Jewish groups found its depiction of antisemitism too realistic and un-checked, further hindering its traction. Despite its difficulties, it won the Golden St. George, the Moscow International Film Festival’s top prize, and was nominated for Best First Feature, Best Male Lead and Best Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards.
Focus (2001) dir. Neal Slavin
This surreal “problem picture” based on Arthur Miller’s novel of the same name sees a gentile man experience harsh ostracization when he is mistakenly identified as Jewish near the end of World War II. Eschewing realism for a more sermonizing sensationalism, the parable tests the limits of complicity and prejudice as a Brooklynite, played by William H. Macy, notices the ways in which people treat him when operating under a false assumption. At first quick to dismiss these claims, he starts realizing the dangers of his silence when he meets a mysterious woman played by Laura Dern.
Consistently compared to a particularly preachy Twilight Zone episode, the film’s didacticism did not win over audiences or critics, though most drew relevant comparisons with the current Muslim-American relations at the time of it’s release. Focus, with its caricaturish tension, remains an interesting experiment in old-fashioned moralizing in an age of rising xenophobia.