Black to the Promised Land
Brownsville Black and White
Now in its second year, the Brooklyn Jewish Film Festival (BJFF) is one of only four independent Jewish film festivals in the country. It’s certainly a fledgling effort, but benefits from both a terrific location and a welcoming audience. All films are shown at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Theater, which normally offers first-run and revival screenings of art-house movies, and often features Q&A sessions with directors, stars, and/or producers. The BAM is in Prospect Heights, between the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Park Slope and Fort Greene, all homes to traditionally Jewish populations, as well as other ethnicities.
Though limited to a 6-day schedule, this year’s BJFF showcased a fairly wide variety of films—mostly documentaries—from Israel and the United States. This year’s theme, “Alle Brider” (in Yiddish: “We are all brothers”), is, of course, especially relevant in light of current events in the Middle East. Yet the BJFF stayed far away from meditation on the renewed Palestinian-Israeli conflict, choosing the safer but still controversial topic of relations between Jews and other ethnicities in the U.S.
With the exception of Strange Fruit (U.S.A. 2002), which was completed about three months before its New York debut at the BJFF, most of the films screened were between two and ten years old, and so the Festival showcases films which had limited or no distribution in the States. Nothing I saw really pushed the boundaries of form or style, but most films provided, at the very least, some understanding of what makes up Jewish identity in either Israel or U.S., in the 1940s, ‘50s, ‘60s, or even today.
One of the most interesting topics explored in the Festival was American Black-Jewish relations, and specifically within New York City. Three documentaries provided glimpses of what used to be a creative, mutually beneficial relationship between the two groups throughout the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. As shown in Brownsville Black and White, however, things eventually fell apart due to changing economic divisions, the push for urban renewal at all costs, and the concomitant erosion of integrated communities, among other factors.
Strange Fruit, the brand-new documentary by first-time filmmaker Joel Katz, tells the history of one of Billie Holliday’s most famous and most emotional songs, and at the same time paints a picture of Jewish-black creative and social relations in 1930s New York City. The song begins with the familiar refrain, “Southern trees / Bear a strange fruit,” and goes on to describe a lynching in the Deep South. While the song has long been a rallying cry for opponents of lynching and other hate crimes against blacks, the song was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx, which points to historical and largely unsung efforts by Jewish activists to end segregation and racism.
With commentary by, among others, Amiri Baraka, Pete Seeger, and Michael and Robby Meeropol (Abel’s adopted sons), the film recalls the song as a powerful black protest song, recorded by jazz greats such as Nina Simone and Cassandra Wilson, but which remains linked in memory with Holliday, and rarely with Meeropol. As a Jewish advocate for blacks, Meeropol remains an important symbol of what the two communities once achieved together. Strange Fruit portrays him almost as a saint: he was a teacher, activist, and, in the most interesting historical twist, adoptive father of the Rosenberg children.
Strange Fruit unfortunately falls victim to an excess of “talking heads”: shot after shot of seated experts speaking to the camera makes its hour running time seem much longer. But three incredibly powerful performances of the song make the film worthwhile. First, there is Holliday’s, for the BBC in 1958. Frail and angry, she bears a life’s worth of weariness in her face and in her voice; a year later, she would be dead. A contemporary, minimal performance by Cassandra Wilson is not so urgent, although it is chilling in its subtleties; she transforms “Strange Fruit” into a historical dirge, mourning what is over but can never be corrected. Finally, 80-year-old Pete Seeger performs just the first verse of the song, explaining that old age has wrecked his voice. But he is wrong; as he sings, his voice cracks and breaks, but it is with emotional intensity and fervor rather than age. Although it is not often regarded as such, “Strange Fruit” began as a song written by an outraged and almost painfully empathetic outsider, and Seeger’s rendition serves as a reminder of this very important, complicated, and even heartening (in that an outsider could be an effective and respectful activist for the disenfranchised) component of its birth.
Brownsville Black and White (2000), directed by the late Richard Broadman, also tells a story that far surpasses its adherence to traditional, and limiting, documentary form and style. The neighborhood of Brownsville in Brooklyn underwent a period of rapid growth in the 1930s. In this neighborhood, an influx of poor Jews and blacks resulted in a totally integrated community long before such things seemed possible in America. Because the residents were in such similar economic and social brackets, they interacted daily. The Brownsville Boys Club (BBC), founded by Brownsville Jewish and black teens in 1940, was a wholly integrated sports and recreation club for area youth; bonded by outside discrimination, the boys played together regardless of their ethnic background.
However, the rise of assisted housing, increasing suburbification and the push for urban renewal imposed segregation upon the community. As the city exerted more and more control over its residents’ daily lives, racial tensions flared and community interaction diminished. The school board wars of 1968, when several ineffective Jewish teachers were forced out of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville public schools, pitted the teacher’s union against community-controlled school boards, and created a harsh dividing line between Jews and blacks that Brownsville Black and White suggests has never been mended. It seems somewhat naïve to imagine that one (albeit major) event was the catalyst for years of racial tension, but the destruction of a healthy community certainly is symptomatic of the city government’s encroachment on citizens’ lives. Regulations instituted by governments that know nothing (and do not bother to learn) about a community can effectively devastate an organically grown community for life.
Perhaps the saddest parts of Brownsville Black and White are the contemporary reunions of the BBC. While at one time, black and Jewish boys played basketball together and learned from each other, now the groups hold separate reunions: the black one in Brownsville (now an almost entirely black community) and the Jewish one in the suburbs. As one black activist observes, “Division is a green line.” In the end, it is the class system, not differences in race or culture, that has ripped this community, and others like it, to pieces. It’s too bad that Brownsville Black and White does not further explore this important social topic, or the possibility that perhaps the community was not as idealistic as its former residents recall. Instead, their comments are taken mostly as truth rather than memories, making the portrayal of Brownsville seem a little too idyllic rather than realistic.
Black to the Promised Land (1991), directed by Madeleine Ali, details the first year of an unusual program in the Bed-Stuy Street Academy high school. Their teacher, Stewart Bialer, takes 11 troubled black teens, to live on an Israeli kibbutz for two weeks. While the idea is certainly novel and has some positive influence on the kids themselves, the film focuses on community building in very problematic ways. At the beginning of Black to the Promised Land, Bed-Stuy residents discuss how theirs is a family-oriented community with something of a bad rap; the camera then shows shot after shot of drug deals, homeless people, and kids rapping about guns and violence. Similar sentiments are expressed by the teens; while they voice their frustration at being pigeon holed as thieves and hoodlums, the camera inevitably goes right back to these shots of a stereotypical urban hell during their commentary.
Furthermore, although relations between the Israelis and black teens are heartwarming, the film glosses over what seems to be the central idea behind sending the kids to Israel. Black to the Promised Land reminds us over and over again that these are at-risk youth. In effect, their school sends them to boot camp. In its portrayal of a poor Israeli community as healthier than a poor black community, Black to the Promised Land does little to reduce the stereotyping of African-Americans. These youths, who appear to grow more mature and responsible before our eyes, and to benefit from their time on the kibbutz, still have the rebellion all but beaten out of them. Black to the Promised Land occasionally shows understanding between two very different groups of people, but one group appears to be harder-working, more honest, more dedicated, and more open. All the black teens feel misunderstood, and well they should, as even the filmmakers misread them.
Although Yanna’s Friends (1999), directed by Arik Kaplun, was the first film shown during the festival, it far outshines the rest and thus deserves special final mention. Winner of 10 Israeli Academy Awards, Yanna’s Friends is an at first confusing ensemble comedy that portrays many different characters, mostly Russian immigrants to Israel, and their romantic foibles in Tel Aviv during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait and subsequent Scud attacks on Israel.
But what is truly exceptional about Yanna’s Friends is not its story; rather, it is its almost desperate reliance on black humor to explain the terror experienced in Tel Aviv in 1990. “What does it matter? Saddam’s gonna blow us up anyway,” remarks Eli (Nir Levy), roommate and love interest for main character Yanna (Evelyn Kaplun). In almost every indoor scene, a television set broadcasts news about Iraqi forces mobilizing or the possibility of attacks on Israel. And when Yanna and Eli finally fulfill the explosive sexual tension between them, it occurs during an air raid alarm: they are naked except for gas masks, and make love with an anonymous immediacy. In this hilarious and curious scene, the lovers look like strange human-insect hybrids, bumping gas mask nozzles lustfully, in a binding together of daily life and war.
Still, for all its terrifying historical context, there is little action in Yanna’s Friends. Rather, it focuses on people going about their lives with the grim specter of war only a step behind. Yanna’s Friends points out, with disconcerting frankness, that the only way to remain sane at such a time is to use humor. Those of us unable to laugh at the absurdity of violence and terror would do well to learn something from this film and from the people who deal with war on a daily basis.
The efforts of the BJFF to explore identity not just within Jewishness, but to use Jewish identity as a jumping-off point to promote understanding among many groups, are admirable and welcome. By offering perspectives on Jewishness as commonly set against blackness, whiteness, etc., the BJFF on the whole is an exciting, well-meaning, and promising event. As funding and interest grow, hopefully it will draw more avant-garde, diverse, controversial, and recent film choices, and so, have greater opportunity to explore questions of race and identity in an era of global integration.