by Lissa Skitolsky
When I read the glowing New York Times review of the recent movie Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (2017) by the Israeli-American director Joseph Cedar, I was intrigued about what A.O. Scott reported as “one of Mr. Cedar’s slyest conceptual jokes,” or the director’s deliberate decision to cast all non-Jews in the roles of the New York Jews who make connections between rich Jews and Israeli politicians. Scott neglects to explain what is clever or funny about the casting choice, though he does list some of the dangers that could have emerged from this choice: “obnoxiously shticky performances; sentimental tribalism; easy moral point-scoring,” and then immediately declares that “None materialize.” The potential problem of the casting choice appears briefly only to be immediately negated, and so disappears as a problem. When I thought of the casting choice I was led to ask a question that nagged me before I saw the film: “What does it mean for a non-Jew to ‘act’ like a New York Jew?” In other words, how was it possible to give direction to the non-Jews about how to ‘appear’ Jewish in stereotypically ‘Jewish’ roles as New York shysters, without inadvertently reinforcing anti-Semitic stereotypes? In most of the positive reviews of the film, this problem did not appear as a problem because the movie was described as a satire.
As I watched the film in a small local theater in central Pennsylvania, in a town in which one can count the number of Jewish families on one hand, I realized that the potential problem of the movie could be described as the problem explicitly raised by the film Bamboozled, Spike Lee’s satire about the decision of an American television studio to create a new blackface minstrel show (pitched by an African American writer) with black actors in blackface. In the film, the possibly satiric nature of the minstrel show allows the audience to displace the reasons for their enjoyment of the show, and instead indulge their desire to reproduce the racist figures (the fictional minstrel show creates a national trend to wear blackface while watching the show, and then blackface becomes a general fad). The film is a satire about the role that our notion of ‘satire’ plays in the contemporary production and consumption of racist stereotypes that reinforce white indifference about systemic anti-black violence.
This Bamboozled problem was also present in the Dave Chappell Show, which was instantly popular for its cutting edge, satiric humor about race and race relations. Chappell famously cancelled the show because he feared that his satire was lost on certain audiences who simply perceived the racist stereotypes in his characters rather than understood his mockery of them. For example, one of his recurring characters was Tyrone Biggums, the crackhead who is consumed with doing crack at all costs, defecates in public, and always appears with white powder on his lips and face. The character is meant to mock the racist stereotype of the black crackhead, but there’s no certainty that all viewers would understand his intent while enjoying the performance.
In the film Bamboozled the fictional minstrel show featured characters who were deliberately based on racist stereotypes central to the economy of American slavery. Similarly, in his film Mr. Cedar based the main character of Norman (a failed businessman, played by Richard Gere) on the hopeless protagonist of the Nazi propaganda film Jud Süß (Jew Süss), a film that aimed to warn Germans against assimilated Jews. Insofar as Norman’s life revolves around schmoozing and lying and ingratiating himself to powerful people every day, the character also resonates with the anti-Semitic “court Jew” stereotype.
In his interview with Neta Alexander for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Mr. Cedar explains that the point of the film is to overturn those anti-Semitic stereotypes through humanizing the otherwise malicious court Jew; for at the end of the film Norman kills himself to ensure that all of the deals he had desperately been trying to make actually succeed. Cedar explains: “The court Jew has always been viewed as the anti-Semitic stereotype views him: as serving a private interest at the expense of a broader public interest. Whereas in ‘Norman’ the story is actually the opposite.” When Alexander protests (“But with Norman you take the anti-Semitic stereotype you oppose to an extreme. For example, Norman is a pathological liar.”), Mr. Cedar responds “that stereotype interests me very much, because I am not far from it, and there are many people around me who are just as close to it . . . I recognized him [Norman] from my everyday life. His behavior follows a set of patterns. When he meets someone, he will do a number of automatic and natural things that are built into his personality. His goal is to connect and to create a network of connections.”
In his interview with The Washington Post, Mr. Cedar similarly explains that he sought to correct the “anti-Semitic spin” of otherwise positive Jewish traits. So already in his understanding of the film there is a thin line—or no line at all—between the fictional portrayal and what he considers the real lives of New York Jews who do a number of “automatic and natural things” built into their personalities, and who can “create a network of connections” (this of course potentially brings to mind—at least for some readers—the anti-Semitic myth of an international Jewish conspiracy). Arguably, despite his stated intentions, the film could have the opposite effect on viewers, as the stereotypically Jew-y traits and behavior of the lead characters are not as recognizably offensive as actors wearing blackface, especially to audiences unfamiliar with the long history of these stereotypes and the role they have always played in rationalizing anti-Jewish sentiment and violence.
Further, critics hailed the performance of these stereotypes as brilliant acting; unsaid was the latent possibility that what viewers found ‘brilliant’ about Mr. Gere’s acting was his ability to depart from his long-standing role as a suave sex symbol to act ‘Jewish,’ or to so convincingly appear to be annoying, shady and pathetic. Indeed if Mr. Cedar recognizes some truth in these anti-Semitic stereotypes then it is unclear how these stereotypes are somehow overcome in the film or given a “new spin.” Cedar suggests that the ‘spin’ occurs at the end, however Norman’s suicide can also be read in an anti-Semitic vein as the typical shallowness of a New York Jewish businessman who prides his success above all else—including his own life.
At a time when the amplified anti-Semitism that followed Trump’s election is often disavowed with reference to the presence of Jews in Trump’s administration, we should not assume that a Jewish filmmaker is incapable of stoking anti-Jewish sentiment in the character types he creates. Notwithstanding Mr. Cedar’s creative vision, his movie shares the problem of the fictional minstrel show in Bamboozled: as a film Norman becomes so lost in the aesthetic embellishment of the anti-Semite’s perspective of Jews that at some point the viewer may assume this perspective and witness Gere ‘acting like’ a typical Jew. And just as with the fictional minstrel show, the supposedly satiric nature of Norman allows the audience to displace the reasons for their enjoyment of the film, as well as the role that these caricatures have played and continue to play in anti-Jewish sentiment. The danger is not that the film will incite a new wave of anti-Semitism, but rather that it could serve to normalize the stereotypes that are still central to anti-Jewish sentiment and white nationalist movements all over the world.
Lissa Skitolsky is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, PA. Her research draws on work in Continental philosophy, genocide studies, and hip hop studies to analyze our cultural and political responses to mass violence and expose discursive practices that normalize genocidal patterns of state violence. She is currently working on a manuscript, “Hip Hop as Philosophical Text and Testimony: Can I Get a Witness?” that is under contract with Lexington Books for their series in Philosophy of Race.
photo credit: Washington Post