For the second year running, activists are outraged by an indefensible lack of diversity at the Oscars. Despite an outcry last year, the nominations this year once again went almost exclusively to white people. This has prompted prominent black actors like Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith to boycott this year’s academy awards. Hollywood’s Jewish stars, however, have remained quiet. That despite having once been discriminated against in Tinseltown themselves.
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I grew up wanting to be a film director and looked forward to watching the Oscars every year. I loved that many producers, actors, and directors looked and sounded just like me; these heroes of mine were white and they were Jewish. Jews made films about Jews, starring Jews. I ultimately decided to devote my life to advocacy, rather than film. Yet, looking at the industry today, I understand that one need not choose between the two: successful figures in Hollywood can use their fame to advocate for just causes.
Which is why I have been disappointed by the lack of Jewish response to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. While it is indeed a myth that “Jews control Hollywood,” it is accurate to say, as Jay Michaelson noted in the Forward, that Jews are incredibly well represented there. And, as Michaelson goes on to say, that power carries with it responsibility.
Furthermore, as Marlow Stern (among others) has pointed out, the Oscars are just the tip of the iceberg. Researchers at the University of Southern California found that of the 100 highest-grossing films of 2014, only 17 had non-white leads or co-leads. Racism in Hollywood, as in the United States, is widespread.
Back in the 1950s, that racism targeted us. When Senator Joseph McCarthy was leading America’s reactionary “red scare,” the American government held hearings targeting the “Jewish Influence” on Hollywood. Many of the industry players McCarthy blacklisted were Jewish – including half of the infamous “Hollywood Ten.” Yet by the 1960s, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, Jews were making films that grappled with anti-Semitism in America, and Yiddish phrases started cropping up in major Blockbusters.
If fighting racism was a part of our own struggle in the Hollywood, why don’t Jewish filmmakers, actors and industry heavyweights use their enormous power and privilege in Hollywood to combat racism there?
A recent interview with the Coen brothers is an illustrative example. When asked about diversity in their films, they responded by saying “you can only write what you can write,” which in their case is films that include Jews and Minnesotans. As Ron Kampeas wrote, they “balked at the notion that film creators bear personal responsibility for promoting diversity.” But they did acknowledge that “there should be more people of diverse backgrounds participating in the filmmaking process.”In other words, they abdicated any responsibility they have to confronting the racism that plagues the film industry.
That’s a problem, because as Brittany Cooper, an assistant professor of Women’s and Gender studies at Rutgers University notes, affirming and combatting racism and white privilege wherever you see it is essential to being a good ally. While the Coen brothers nodded to the problems in the industry, they shied away from their personal responsibility to address them.
How could their answer have been better? Let’s assume for a moment that the Coen brothers were right, and it was truly impossible for them to incorporate people of color into their writing. Does that mean they are free from the responsibility to diversify Hollywood – something they also admit is a problem? Certainly not.
Rather than focusing on the things that they can’t do, Jews in Hollywood should look to what they can do. And they can do a lot. They can collaborate on projects with artists of color. They can organize, like they did to show Jewish support for the Iran deal, to demonstrate that Hollywood Jews oppose racism. If they win awards, they can use their platforms to speak out against discrimination. And they can respond to calls from colleagues in their industry like Lupita Nyong’o, by promoting, funding and advocating for the production of more films that tell diverse stories with diverse casts.
In other words, Jews in Hollywood should look for any and every opportunity to combat racism in the industry. The Coen brothers, like other white stars, answered questions about the discrimination by being defensive. That’s because their mindset is wrong. Yes, they might acknowledge the problems in the industry, but are singularly focused on why they’re not responsible for them.
That defensive mentality needs to shift. Jews in Hollywood should listen to calls from black activists and take on the responsibility of making racial equity a priority. Not just because Jews have our own storied history of discrimination in the industry, but also because they are uniquely well positioned to make a positive difference. Jewish stars have all the means they need to do this, but change won’t happen for as long as they are more focused on deflecting responsibility than taking a cue from our tradition to repair the world around them.
Benjy Cannon is the Mikva Fellow at J Street and a former president of J Street U. He holds a BA in Government, Politics and Philosophy from the University of Maryland. Follow him on Twitter @benjycannon.