Portrayals of minorities in films and the media


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.

Comments

  1. says

    My first reaction to your post was to the casting of Richard Gere was, of course, here is a non-Jewish actor playing a Jewish man. But looking into it, the writer/director of the movie is Israeli and he made the choice to cast Gere so it’s okay. Unlike the upcoming movie Ni’ihau where of course a white actor will be playing the decidedly non-white native Hawaiian Ben Kanahele in a movie made written, directed, and produced by non-native Hawaiians (though I suspect the downed Japanese pilot and the two Japanese-Americans who helped him will be played by East Asian actors (possibly Chinese or Korean)).

  2. cartomancer says

    I don’t know whether ethnic minority communities have the same related problem too, but with the LGBT community there is a further concern. It’s not just “oh, I hope these stereotypical portrayals don’t give the population at large the wrong impression about us”, there’s also a concern that young LGBT people will grow up taking the negative portrayals to heart as well. I suspect this is not so much of a problem with ethnic minority communities, where young members will usually be raised with their own family and cultural traditions alongside mainstream culture, rather than having to extract what it means to be a part of their subculture from the mainstream.

  3. Mano Singham says

    cartomancer,

    I agree that it would be harder for young LGBT people since they would not be surrounded by other people like them who do not fit the stereotype, the way that members of ethnic groups are.

  4. Mano Singham says

    Tabby,

    I had not known what ethnicity/religion Gere was. It is interesting that the film also stars Steve Buscemi as a rabbi so the filmmaker was clearly more concerned with getting the right actors for the parts rather than their background.

  5. says

    Unfortunately that’s an argument film makers keep making when they whitewash roles. Somehow the right actors end up almost always being white.

    In the case of this movie, I suspect it’s less about finding the right actors and more about getting name actors (not that Gere or Buscemi aren’t fine actors). But like I said in my original comment, I’m fine with it here because the actor/director is Jewish. It’s the same reason I wasn’t bothered by Matt Damon starring in The Great Wall. It was a Chinese production and that was their choice to hire him.

  6. says

    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.

    As a white guy, whenever something shitty happens, I pretty much just assume it’s one of us. Saves time.

  7. mnb0 says

    “It is different with minorities …..”
    That’s what I have learned after living in totally multicultural Suriname as a white Dutchman – how annoying being stereotyped can be and not to take any individual, whether real of fictional, as representative for the entire group.
    Of course there is nothing new under the sun. A movie that deals with this problem, is still relevant after more than 40 years and on top is very funny is

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0069747/?ref_=nv_sr_1

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