Thursday, June 8, 2017

On the Joy of Not Having to Care: Ethnic Casting, Jewish Subdivision

         In early June (2017), there has been some discussion on the web on how the Israeli actress Gal Gadot gives us a Diana in Wonder Woman who is princess of the Amazons, and Jewish. Aside from some weird issues here about race — issues that could be disposed of by just saying, "Yeah, at root we Jews are Semites, not Aryans" — what's at stake in this minor debate isn't that Ms. Gadot is Jewish but Israeli. So the film has gotten involved in the standard agit-prop over the existence of Israel/the Zionist entity and the 50th anniversary of Israeli occupation of lands generally recognized as Palestinian. Well, Israel was the deep topic, plus informing people who don't know the history of comics the dark secret that the major comic book superheroes were created by Jews.

         The horror! But do keep the Yiddishkeit of the many of the creators of comics in mind if you ever study the attack on comic books in the 1950s and their role in the Seduction of the Innocent.

         But since "everybody is talking about" Wonder Woman — an excellent movie, by the way — I want to follow my usual custom and talk about something else, taking my "Jagged Orbit" off on a tangent.

         So: Consider the movie Norman (2016), subtitled "The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer," and definitely a New York Jewish fixer — who gets involved in Israeli politics and saving the synagog of a definitely New York Jewish congregation.

         Norman Oppenheimer in the film is mostly a small-time fixer, "mirrored" by Srul Katz, an even smaller-time fixer, played by Hank Azaria in a very small role.

         Hank Azaria is Sephardic Jewish, and the Israeli characters are played by actors at least generally Jewish, a safe inference with the major character, Micha Eshel, played by an actor named Lior Ashkenazi. Norman is played by Richard Gere, who is neither Jewish nor New Yorker (b. Philadelphia). The relevant rabbi, Rabbi Blumenthal, is played by Steve Buscemi, who was born in Brooklyn but raised Roman Catholic, and not Jewish. Ditto for not New York, not Jewish — there's a website where one can look up such things — for the English and Welsh actors who played the other major New York Jewish roles.

         Matters are similar for that fine movie on Jewish and other partisan resistance to the Nazis, Defiance (2008), where one of the three heroic Bielski brothers is the emphatically Jewish Liev Schreiber, but the other two are the English actors Daniel Craig, who is not Jewish, and Jamie Bell, who is probably also not Jewish.

         The point with Norman and Defiance is that if there are people out there who give a rat's ass about the ethnicities of the actors playing Norman or the Bielski brothers, they've been quiet about it, or, anyway, any complaints have failed to gain traction on the web and other media.

         No accusations of cultural appropriation; no complaints about the impossibility of these gentiles to embody the Jewish experience, the "inappropriateness" of their trying.

         And, the point of this little essay: that's a damn good thing.

         It might not continue given the Furies that can be released by a failed — or all-too-successful — Presidency of Donald J. Trump, but at least into 2016 of the Christian Era, Jews in the West were in a strong enough position that we could be happy that competent and popular actors were portraying us on film in positive or neutral or at least nuanced roles.

         The ideal for every minority group is a world free of ethnic hatreds and contempt. On the road to utopia, though, a decent mile-marker is where you can save your anger for blatant attacks and can take cultural borrowing as a compliment and not have to worry about such relative trivia as who gets cast to play whom in movies.

         It's good to see a nice Jewish girl kicking Aryan ass in Wonder Woman, but it's not a big deal. And Richard Gere made a most excellent Norman, and Steve Buscemi was well-cast as a nervous rabbi.

            And, for that matter, I prefer Irish-American Owen Wilson's Woody Allen in Midnight in Paris (2011) to pretty much any of Woody Allen's Woody Allen.

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