Richard Gere stars in a new film that has just been released called Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, about a Jewish ‘fixer’ or dealmaker in New York. He happens to do an expensive favor for an obscure Israeli politician who later becomes prime minister of that country and this suddenly makes Norman a highly sought-after influence peddler. Jeffrey Salkin writes that he cringed many times while watching the film and explains why.
Norman is a collection of classic Jewish archetypes – a macher (a person who gets things done), a schnorrer (a beggar), and even sometimes, despite himself, a mensch.
But, more often, he is a name dropper, a business card distributor, and a people collector.
His life is a viral contagion of favors, in which he owes people, people owe him, and people owe each other because they owe Norman.
He over-promises and under-delivers – especially to his struggling synagogue, and its rabbi, played by Steve Buscemi, in an un-weird, sympathetic performance.
Salkin poses the question “Is ‘Norman’ good for Jews?” and concludes that, just as Italian-Americans cringed at the portrayals of them in The Sopranos but recognized elements of truth in the portrayal and learned to live with it, so must Jews.
We might not like it. But, contemporary Jewish life could barely function without its “Normans.”
More than this: if we declare that Jewish foibles are off limits, then we are saying to ourselves that Jews are powerless, and that we are always gearing up for the next pogrom – or alt-right inspired tweets.
But it is not just Jews or Italian-Americans who ask this kind of question about films (and anything else in the public consciousness) that puts the focus on their communities. Members of any minority group ask a similar one whenever there is a high-profile portrayal of their community, worrying that it will deal in stereotypes that harm them in the eyes of others.
Members of the majority community may not realize this and the reason is simple statistics. Portrayals of the majority community, while they may deal in stereotypes too, are not taken as representative of everyone in that community because given that we know so many people in the majority community, we are all acquainted with people who do not fit the stereotype. So the white racist in a film is seen as just a racist who is white and not a sign that all whites are racist.
It is different with minorities for whom the portrayal may be all that members of other communities know about that community, since they may not personally know even a single member of that community or, if they do, only superficially. This is why whenever there is a high profile crime that is associated in the public mind with any single minority, almost the first reaction of members of that minority community on hearing the news is “I hope the perpetrator is not one of us”. I doubt that people in the majority community react that way.
But minorities cannot expect to be portrayed entirely in a positive light. As Salkin says, we have to come to terms with portrayals that may make us cringe on occasion as long as it is part of a more rounded presentation and is not used to incite hostility and hate.
I haven’s seen Norman yet to review it but here’s the trailer.