Saturday, May 10, 2008

Picture of American Prejudice

The Fox Movie Channel showed "Gentleman's Agreement" last night, a preachy drama about anti-Semitism that won the Academy Award 60 years ago, and it brought into focus the realization that I may live to see a black man inaugurated as President of the United States.

What Barack Obama faces from now until November would be unimaginable to the people who made and saw that movie then, including a 23-year-old just back from World War II who had little audacity and even less hope of living in the rich, glossy world it portrayed.

Gregory Peck played a magazine writer who pretends to be Jewish. A decade later, I was an editor on one of those magazines, unknowingly hired by George W. Bush's grandfather as the first Jew among thousands of employees, working with Laura Z. Hobson, who wrote the novel on which the picture was based.

When it came out, there was an uproar against the director, Elia Kazan, and the producer, Darryl Zanuck, whose names sounded foreign and were presumed to be of Jewish origin. Hobson relished the irony that they weren't but that she, who was but had married someone with an Anglo-Saxon name, escaped the anger of the offended.

Prejudice is still a nasty, shadowy business that, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, seldom shows its face openly. No one uses phrases like "gentleman's agreement" or "restricted" these days, but "blue-collar voters" and "Reagan Democrats" serve the same purpose as codes to mask fear and hatred of people who are different.

We haven't had a Jewish president but, if and when Barack Obama takes the oath of office next January, "Gentleman's Agreement" will be even more of an anachronism than it is now. But until then, it's a movie that Hillary Clinton, John McCain and their supporters might want to think about.


Anonymous said...

What a career you've had!

The general election may be a contest of patriotism. We will need to force a debate over what constitutes responsible patriotism and the other kind that damages the nation and prospects for most of its citizens.

Anonymous said...

I saw this film many years ago; John Garfield played a Jewish friend who violently objected to the idea of the Peck character.

On a related note, in James Gleick's "Genius" you will find that Richard Feymann, regarded by many as the second-greatest physicist of the 20th century after Einstein, was almost refused by Princeton as a doctoral student because of his Jewish background. That was the 1940s roughly contemporary with the film.