July 1, 2010

Apparently I’m too White to be in the Movies

Posted in Pop Culture at 9:25 pm by chavalah

Jake Gyllenhaal- Actor, Half Jew, WHITE BOY

It’s summer blockbuster time, and movies are starting to make a splash (or perhaps a thud. :P) Several films have been singled out as brushing across race issues, sometimes good but often in bad ways.

Let’s start with “Prince of Persia,” the latest kooky adventure from “Pirates of the Caribbean” producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Leading man Jake Gyllenhaal is causing a bit of a stir for his racial background. Well, he may not be Persian, but he is the actor most like myself—Ashkenazi mother, gentile dad, and purporting (at least nominally) to be Jewish. (Mishpacha!) So whenever he or his sister Maggie make the silver screen gossip circuit, I tend to look out for them. 😛

(Random note: Naomi Foner, the Gyllenhaal matriarch, wrote the adaptation for one of my favorite Jewish-themed movies, “The Bee Season.” Carry on. :P)

In this instance, there’s not much I can say. My own paternal ancestry (Italian) is perhaps closer to Persian than Gyllenhaal’s Swedish. To the best of my knowledge, Jake is there to give a “Mummy”-like movie a dose of Grade A stardom. Though I’ve not seen it, this doesn’t seem to be the sort of movie that you’re expected to take “seriously.” But issues of race and ethnicity (often justifiably) seem to rile people up. Just a note of caution, critics—if you’re going to whine about Gyllenhaal’s lack of Middle Eastern ancestry, at least don’t confuse Persian with Arab, kthanx. Also, when considering the ethnic backgrounds of the rest of the cast, please note that Jake is the norm, not the exception. (In other words, plz to not place the entire blame on my favorite Academy Award-nominated interfaith Jew boy. :P)

On opposite ends of the scale, the new “The Karate Kid” and anime-inspired “The Last Airbender” are making waves as the most and least race friendly movies of the season. “Airbender,” manned by Indian-American director M. Night Shyalaman, features a Caucasian cast in Asian roles, which has led to anger and promises of boycott. For a writer/director I admire so much for his delving into philosophical and faith-based issues, I admit some disappointment myself.

The movie I want to focus more on, however, is “The Karate Kid.” Though I’ve not seen it yet (woe to lack of disposable income,) I can understand the hype. More than just a story about West meets East, it also encompasses two often overlooked minorities, an Asian man (in Asia…as played by Jackie Chan) and an African American boy (Jaden Smith). Not to mention the film is getting good reviews for its craft. As far as remakes go, this one probably takes the cake.

But let’s not be so quick to dismiss the first one as a bunch of white boys prancing around. The original “Karate Kid” is as much about inter-cultural tension as the remake. Daniel LaRusso (played by Ralph Macchio) is an Italian American kid come from the bowels of immigrant Newark, N.J. to live on “the wrong side of the tracks” in WASPy, assimilated Los Angeles. The karate influence speaks to America’s growing interest in Eastern culture at the time. Yes, it was misused by the Cobra Kai dojo, and you can see the tension between the thuggish sensai and ‘Pat’ Morita’s Mr. Miyagi when they meet. Insofar as ’80s teen movies go, this one was actually pretty thoughtful and nuanced.

I guess I take personal umbrage to the argument that the remake “Karate Kid” is more about “real” minorities or ethnic diversity, because my father lived that life in New York/New Jersey and, as previously blogged about, the majority of American Jews did as well. I can’t speak to the sequels, as I never really got into them, but 1984’s “The Karate Kid” is pretty decent stand-alone.

Let’s hope in the future that Hollywood can avoid unneeded controversy by not “whitewashing” roles that should be more colorful. In the meantime, keep those stories about multiculturalism and interfaith coming! I might be writing one soon. 😀

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