Watching movies in the shadow of President-elect Trump.
There’s a woman handing out safety pins at the meeting. The large, sturdy kind. She wants us to wear them. A lot of us do.
Her hair is more salt than pepper, and she’s limping through the small office space with a walker and a friendly sense of determination as huddles of people bounce between a variety of emotionally-charged conversations. Anguish, shock, despair, righteous indignation, perseverance, conviction. It’s the Saturday after Election Day at the Democratic Party HQ in foggy Seaside, California, and the cheerful old woman is offering symbolic office supplies to a pissed off crowd too large for this squat little structure to hold.
The point of wearing the pins – a movement that arose after Brexit – is to show solidarity with anyone who may be threatened by hate groups and unaffiliated garbage people who have felt emboldened by Trump’s victory to tell black people they’ll be shot, to call classmates “spics” while chanting about The Wall, to drag a Muslim woman to the ground by her hijab, or to inundate Jewish people on twitter with images of gas chambers.
In other words, to be an ally.
The safety pin thing is, for many, a way to respond when you don’t know how to respond. Something to do when it seems like there’s nothing you can do. It’s simple. And that was okay in the first week. It’s a small first answer to wondering what someone disoriented by mourning is supposed to do just after overwhelming hatred has been rubber stamped by the highest office in the world. Wearers shouldn’t feel bad, but they can feel better by not stopping there.
Most everyone I know who’s wearing safety pins has his or her heart in the right place (on their lapels), but the act is more palliative and performative than anything else – drawing attention more to the wearer ‘s ally status than to those who are staring down harassment – an (ironically) almost invisible first baby step that, sadly for many, will never lead to the next step even while “As Bystanders Stood By” gets printed at the end of our headlines.
It’s that bystander effect— the thing Simon and Garfunkel apocryphally turned into “The Sound of Silence” – that demands we revisit Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement.
Antisemitism is the movie’s first obvious enemy. It’s 1947, and, wouldn’t you know it, we were the good guys in the war against the Nazis.
Gregory Peck plays Schuyler Green, a magazine writer who moves his steadfast mom (Anne Revere) and precocious son Tommy (Dean Stockwell (yes, the Quantum Leap hologram guy)) to New York City just in time for a big new assignment.
Prompted by his niece Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), Smith’s Weekly editor John Minify (Albert Dekker) hires Schuyler to write an article about antisemitism in America, and while the writer wrings his hands for a while about how to make the piece fresh, he soon hits upon a Vice-worthy idea to go “under cover” as a Jew named Phillip Greenberg in order to write about antisemitism from first-hand experience.
The only people that know he’s a gentile are his editor and Kathy, whom he’s swiftly fallen in love with. She’s a clever, confident divorcee who sweetly nails him to the ground for pre-judging her. Kathy loathes antisemitism and suggested the article to her uncle after seeing a Jewish teacher forced out of his job. You don’t even have to squint to see the safety pin on her lapel.
After sweeping each other off their respective feet, the movie splits into two narratives that occasionally butt heads and eventually intersect: Phil and Kathy’s unconventional romance following a near-instant engagement; and the drastic change Phil undertakes after experiencing hatred firsthand, illustrated through discrimination and a series of varied dialogues that cover almost every attitude toward antisemitism you can imagine.
He’s subtly shunned in social situations, watches his longtime friend (Jewish G.I. Dave (John Garfield) accosted by a drunk jackass slurring “yid” into his face, and – in a landmark moment – is haughtily and slyly turned away from an exclusionary hotel when he asks if they’re exclusionary.
“In response to your question, may I inquire…are you…that is, do you follow the Hebrew religion? Or is that you just want to make sure…?”
He reveals that he’s Jewish and, suddenly, there are no more rooms at the inn.
But it’s the quieter injustices that sting more. It even starts at the liberal magazine he’s writing for, a progressive bastion that told his secretary there were no openings when she applied with her real name (“Wolofsky”), only to hire her when she applies as “Wales.”
There is nowhere safe from soft, easy bigotry in Gentleman’s Agreement.
Including romance. When Phil tells Kathy the angle he’s taking for the story, she bristles, fumbles, bobs and weaves through the conversation once she can see he’s annoyed. He can’t tell if he’s being self-serious, and she can’t get comfortable with the fictional Jew in front of her.
Naturally, it isn’t her own prejudice at play: she’s terrified at what others will think, and that sickness infect and re-infects the rest of their bumpy courtship until Kathy emerges as the true villain of the film.
Her liberal outrage is all done within the safe confines of her New York City apartment, social clubs and the affluent township of Darien, Connecticut where she owns a home she’s decorated but never lived in. She’s far more concerned with whether friends of friends at her engagement party will be bothered by Phil being “Jewish” than in rebuking their hatred. It would be, you know, icky and uncomfortable to point out to them that they’re assholes.
God forbid, rumors might spread. And what if they keep thinking he’s Jewish even after his article runs?
The final straw comes when young Tommy comes home after being called a “dirty Jew” and a “kike” by schoolmates who refuse to let him play with them. Kathy breathlessly assures him that it’s okay because he’s not actually Jewish.
Even in the face of a dirty verbal fight, Tommy refuses to tell his attackers that he’s a gentile to save his skin, but Kathy, with discomfort merely in the corner of her eye, springs to reassure Tommy that he’s a shiny, white, male, Christian, golden boy.
Kathy and Phil call off the engagement, but instead of a montage where they both look off thoughtfully into the distance from the roof of their respective apartment buildings, the fate of their relationship rests in the hands of two conversations. The first is Anne railing against the simple “liberals” who blast racism from behind white picket fences with no intention of getting their hands dirty or standing up when the time calls for it.
The second is Kathy telling Dave about a terrible bigot who told a joke at a dinner party she’d been to, and Dave challenging her: “What did you do about it?”
“Somebody told a story, and the nice people didn’t laugh. They even despised him for it. But they let it pass.”
What’s an ally worth if they don’t get into the fight?
The real shock isn’t the earned condemnation, but the revelation that Kathy might never have realized she could do something more. To be the fighter required in a war of Us vs Them And Their Enablers. To wear her safety pin, to give time and money, to commit to real action, and to find out what she can do instead of sighing deep while asking, “But what can I do?” into the empty atmosphere.
Kazan wasn’t a big fan of the movie in hindsight. He considered most of it “too Hollywood” (besides the scene with Dave and Kathy) and envisioned audiences filled with pre-woke Kathys all nodding and congratulating themselves on getting the message without really getting the message.
Gentleman’s Agreement doesn’t condemn the act of wearing a safety pin. It condemns those who think that wearing one is all they can do or need to do in order to consider themselves righteous and good.
With a President-elect Trump who vowed during his candidacy to put Muslims on a registry and ban them from entering the country, and who openly courted the neo-Nazi alt-right before enshrining their biggest mouthpiece, Steve Bannon, as his chief strategist, the coming four years may be an age for the polite Kathys who can’t stand to see the dust upset even as heavy boots stomp the streets, but it could be an age for speaking forcefully and plainly against the sickness of antisemitism, Islamophobia and any other brand of bigotry.
As Vann R. Newkirk II writes in this piece for The Atlantic, “sometimes there are more important goals than civility.”
Know of another movie we need to watch in the shadow of Trump? Let us know in the comments section or email [email protected] with the subject “Trump Movies.”
Related Topics: Politics