Filmmaker Spike Lee’s portrayal of two Jewish jazz club owners in the new film “Mo’ Better Blues” is being called anti-Semitic by both the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith and some leading film critics.
In his previous three movies, including last year’s “Do The Right Thing,” Lee vividly explored the black experience and the effects of racial prejudice in America. In “Mo’ Better Blues,” his central character is a black trumpet player who tries unsuccessfully to wheedle a raise from the two Jewish owners of the jazz club where his band performs.
The two-dimensional depiction of the two brothers, named Moe and Josh Flatbush, who appear in brief scenes throughout the movie, was sharply criticized by Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL.
“Spike Lee’s characterization of Moe and Josh Flatbush as greedy and unscrupulous club owners dredges up an age-old and highly dangerous form of anti-Semitic stereotyping,” Foxman said.
“ADL is disappointed that Spike Lee — whose success is largely due to his efforts to break down racial stereotypes and prejudice has employed the same kind of tactics that he supposedly deplores.”
Foxman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he issued the statement in the same spirit that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League have protested stereotypical portrayals of blacks.
‘SIMPLISTIC AND CRUDE’
“Here’s a man who’s creative,” Foxman said of the black filmmaker, “yet he falls back on these stereotypes that are so simplistic and crude. There are many ways to portray greedy people. He had all kinds of choices. That’s the choice he made.”
Susan Fowler, a spokeswoman at Lee’s Forty Acres and a Mule production company, said the writer director was not issuing a statement in response to the ADL’s charges. Lee feels that “the movie speaks for itself,” Fowler said.
On Monday, the Los Angeles Times surveyed leading film critics, and while many agreed with the ADL charges, some also defended Lee’s right of free artistic expression.
One of the sharpest rebukes came from David Ansen of Newsweek, who said in his review that the Flatbush brothers are “caricatured as villainous Shylocks.” Coming “from a self-proclaimed enemy of ethnic stereotyping, this is inexcusable,” he wrote.
New York Times critic Caryn James also described the two club owners as “money-grubbing, devious, ugly stereotypes with sharks’ smiles,” and asks, “What could have been going through Lee’s mind when he invented the Jewish club owners?”
David Denby, the critic for New York magazine, agreed that Lee was feeding the currently “fashionable” anti-Semitism among black people.
But he also warned that it was dangerous to pin labels like “misogynous,” “racist” or “anti-Semitic” on films, because “you get to the point where you can’t say anything,” Denby said.
Time magazine critic Richard Schickel panned Lee for his constant stereotyping of
characters in all his films, but did not specifically touch on the Flatbush issue in his review.
“I didn’t take this to be anti-Semitism on his part,” Schickel said. “These guys are fringe characters who operate marginal show business enterprises with a shrewd eye to the main chance. The type is familiar to anyone in show business … and not particularly Jewish. We’re not talking Shylock here.”
Though Lee has not responded to the criticism directly, he told Variety columnist Army Archerd last week that his own father played for jazz clubs that were owned by Jews and that he did not intend the Flatbush brothers as an indictment of all Jewish club owners.
“But the facts are that black artists have always had to struggle to be paid what their white counterparts were paid,” Lee said.
RIGHT TO CREATIVE FREEDOM
Lee also questioned in the interview whether the Jewish top executives at Universal Pictures, Lou Wasserman and Sidney Sheinberg, would have released the film if it struck them as obviously anti-Semitic.
The two executives were quoted in Variety as defending Lee’s right to creative freedom, and a studio spokeswoman reiterated this point.
“We understand the concerns,” she said, “but we are not in the business of censoring filmmakers. We didn’t try on “The Last Temptation of Christ’ and we aren’t now. We stand behind freedom of speech. Once you start censoring, where do you stop? Who makes these judgments? Any portrayal is the filmmaker’s choice.”
But film critic Michael Medved challenged Universal’s defense of the movie, pointing out that no Jewish group had ever called for censorship.
The ADL statement, he noted, merely said that the group hoped “that this kind of insensitive and hurtful stereotyping does not repeat itself in Lee’s next movie.”
Medved, who co-hosts the television program “Sneak Previews” and is also active in the Los Angeles Jewish community, expressed regret that the controversy would give the film greater publicity, and said that Lee is likely “filled with joy and glee at the ADL statement and the conflict it’s engendered.
FASHIONABLE TO ATTACK JEWS
“Spike can be a martyr now, because it looks as though the big bad Jewish establishment is coming down on this poor black filmmaker,” Medved said.
Medved echoed film critic Denby in saying that it has become “fashionable among liberal black circles to verbally attack Jews.”
The controversy over “Mo’ Better Blues” is the second in as many months bearing on black-Jewish tensions in the entertainment industry.
Last month, a speaker at a meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People charged that black entertainers and producers had been held back due to the “century-old problem of Jewish racism in Holly wood.”
Medved said that “it’s ironic that people are making a point about closed doors to blacks at a time when they are so prominent, where that success has largely been orchestrated by Jewish agents, producers and directors.”
(JTA correspondent Tom Tugend in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.