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Blacks and Jews

Reportedly the first documentary to explore the black-Jewish conflict, "Blacks and Jews" centers on five historical case studies that indicate rage and hostility but also courage and hope. Though stylistically conventional, this important film, which presents relevant information about the multiracial structure of U.S. society and has immediate implications for the way the two races perceive and interact with each other, should be presented on PBS and embraced by Jewish and black organizations, elementary and high schools, and other venues for docus. Reframing the changing relations between two prominent ethnic minorities in America, "Blacks and Jews" has the novelty of telling five contempo stories from multiple perspectives. Combining archival footage and interviews with scholars and leaders of both camps, the film provides an overview as well as specific socio-political contexts within which the cases took place.

The first story focuses on Crown Heights, where a West Indian risked his life to save a Hasidic Jew and his son at the height of the 1991 riots. The tale goes unreported by the media, but the two men become friends. Though they still disagree about politics and religion, they share consensus about what’s fundamentally human in their lives. This segment also chronicles mutual efforts to bring together youths from both communities to discuss stereotypes about one another.

Revisiting the break-up of the black-Jewish civil rights coalition in Chicago, the second chapter revolves around Rabbi Robert Marx, the founder of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, as he confronts Jewish real estate speculators who are gouging black homeowners. In never-before-seen footage, Clyde Ross, leader of the black home buyers, joins Marx in describing the confrontations with police as many buyers resisted evictions. What’s interesting about this segment is the intersection of economics and politics, the fact that class was more significant than race.

The third yarn details the journey of Salim Muwakkil through the Nation of Islam, where he rose to become editor of its newspaper, Muhammad Speaks. He is joined by friends, all former members, as they recall why and how the organization fulfilled important functions when they were younger. Currently a respected Chicago columnist, Muwakkil warns against anti-Semitism in the black community.

For the fourth segment, docu goes to Hollywood with the goal of dissecting the myth of Jewish control of the industry. Though presenting fascinating material, this is the most shallow segment.

Still, Academy of Motion Picture’s president, director Arthur Hiller, recalls how his Jewishness was not a disadvantage or cause for exclusion. Hiller also describes the famous “blackface” scene in his comedy “Silver Streak,” starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, and the divergent interpretations given to it by the film’s Jewish and black stars, respectively.

Without a doubt, the most exciting episode is the last one, a chapter that perhaps should be developed into a full-length docu. It depicts the field trip of Oakland’s black and Latino high school students to see the Holocaust movie “Schindler’s List” on Martin Luther King Day. Thrown out of the screening because some of them were noisy and disrespectful during a brutal execution scene, the students try to explain their conduct — none too convincingly — and reflect on how the national media exploited the scandal for various agendas. The segment follows the students, their teachers and their community for the next several months, climaxing in a wonderfully entertaining — and illuminating — visit to the school by filmmaker Steven Spielberg, accompanied by attention-seeking California Gov. Pete Wilson.

The different stories are linked by dramatic presentations, including a black-Jewish theatrical workshop and excerpts from the play, “Crossing the Broken Bridge,” a joint production of San Francisco’s Traveling Jewish Theater and New Orleans’ Junebug Prods., and reading by Columbia law professor Patricia Williams from her book, “Alchemy of Race and Rights,” about conflict resolution and healing.

Blacks and Jews

Production: A Snitow-Kaufman production. Produced by Alan Snitow, Deborah Kaufman, Bari Scott. Directed, written by Alan Snitow, Deborah Kaufman.

Crew: Camera (b&w/color), Ashley James; editor, Veronica Selver; music, David Slusser. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (American Spectrum), Jan. 21, 1997. Running time: 85 MIN.

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