CultureJew: From Hasidic Brooklyn to Detroit

For all of you who have been waiting breathlessly for a new Yiddish movie, I have good news. Brooklyn Hasid Menashe Lustig is the star of the Yiddish-language film “Menashe,” the story of a widower who loses the right to care for his son because he has not remarried. Directed by documentary filmmaker Joshua Weinstein, the film is based in large part on Lustig’s life. The portly, red haired Lustig came to Weinstein’s attention through a series of comic YouTube videos he has posted, a weird enough avocation for a Hasid, but Lustig has a natural warmth and charm on screen, which made the movie popular at Sundance. That doesn’t totally make up for the film’s shambling quality, but it goes a long way.

The movie details Menashe’s attempts to maintain a connection with his son, who is living with Menashe’s brother-in-law’s family. According to the customs of Menashe’s community, children must be in two-parent households, and while we see Menashe dating, it’s obvious he is not eager to find a new wife. He is also in a precarious financial situation. His boss at the grocery store dislikes him, and he’s constantly screwing up. Menashe seems like an overgrown child himself. He can’t get up on time, he drinks too much at the rebbe’s tisch, and he isn’t scrupulous about keeping kosher. (I’m assuming that eating a sandwich in a bodega isn’t on the Hasidic to-do list.) In many ways, he is an irresponsible parent, the type who thinks cake and soda are a good breakfast. More importantly, he seems insensitive to his son’s needs and feelings. At one point, he pleads with his rebbe that the boy is his only consolation and that should be reason enough for his son to live with him. What about what the boy needs?

Weinstein, who is secular, maintains a neutral tone in the film regarding Hasidim and their lifestyle. The Hasidic community is what it is; there is no affectionate glow as in Rama Burshtein’s films, but neither is it denigrated. Its customs and beliefs are matter-of-factly displayed. This is the world Menashe lives in and the one where he will have to find his way. Another noticeable difference is that the actors (some of whom are Hasidim) are distinctly less attractive that the secular Israeli actors who appear in other movies about the ultra-Orthodox. No sexy matinee idols here.  A funny sidenote: I saw the movie with a Yiddish-speaking friend, and we agreed that we could barely understand the dialogue. I don’t know what dialect the characters were speaking, but it wasn’t the Litvishin Yiddish my friend and I speak.

They Break Up in France Too

If you want another foreign-language film about a bad marriage, check out the French/Belgian feature “After Love.” Sensitively told, this painfully intimate look at a disintegrating relationship stars Berenice Bejo, the lovely star of “The Artist,” and Cedric Kahn. Boris and Marie have been together for 15 years, have twin daughters, and share a beautiful home that they’ve remodeled together. What to do with the house becomes the focal point of their disagreement. Marie insists that she’s paid most of the bills while Boris wants sweat equity for all his design and construction labor. Marie’s mother adds her advice and their friends are forced into choosing sides. All the goodies breaking up brings.

Director Joachim Fosse captures the simmering anger that explodes intermittently, the ever-present resentment turning to rage, and the deep sadness for a lost love, which characterizes every broken relationship. We also see how their parents’ unhappiness affects the children, who alternate between casual disobedience and real acting out. Not a great date movie, “After Love” is ultimately a honest and moving exploration of separation.

What Happens in “Detroit”

There has been a lot of talk about “Detroit” and whether director Kathryn Bigelow, who is white, is able to tell the story of the riots, or rebellion, that took place in 1967, and the shocking incident at the Algiers Motel, where Detroit police killed three African-American young men. I’m not going to get into the morass of whether history can be told honestly only by members of the community that experienced it. To my eyes, Bigelow imbues the African-American characters in the film with real personalities and backgrounds. They are not only victims of police violence, although they are certainly that. If she and her writer /collaborator Mark Boal fail to meet a challenge, it is that they do not avoid the typical few-bad-apples motif. We learn from the prologue written by Henry Louis Gates and illustrated by images from Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration series of paintings that the Detroit police department was known for its brutality, and that the black community had long protested police harassment. Such viciousness is cultural and systemic, not limited to a couple of nasty cops. That reality is borne out by the show trial of the three officers in front of an all-white jury at the end of the film and their quick acquittal, as well as the ongoing problem of police shootings of black men.

The movie begins with a police raid on an after-hours club, which almost immediately turns into a full-scale riot, with fires and looting over a large section of the city. Bigelow’s skillful interweaving of newsreel footage and handheld camera work gives “Detroit” a gripping tension from the start. We feel the fury of the crowds running through the street and the panic and rage among the police and firefighters who find themselves under attack.

Amidst the chaos, we meet several central characters, who all end up the Algiers Motel. A singer named Larry Reed (Algee Smith) is about to get his big break at the legendary Fox Theater when an emergency is declared and the theater emptied. Bitterly disappointed, he heads to the closest safe spot to join a bunch of people partying. Private security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is on patrol at a nearby grocery store, where he attempts to build relationships with skittery National Guard troops to rescue some teenagers caught up in a sweep. Meanwhile, the fictionalized racist cop Krauss (Will Poulter)  is chasing and shooting looters when he hears that a sniper is holed up in one of the rooms at a motel.

The scene at the Algiers soon turns into hours of horror as Krauss and his partner terrorize a group of black men and two white women on the pretext that they want to find the sniper. This scene is unremittingly brutal and the viewer is totally identified with the people slammed up against the wall, convinced that they may die at any moment.

Here is where Bigelow and Boal run into their problem. National Guard and Michigan State Police are on the scene, but they carefully avoid getting involved. A young white guardsman eventually rescues the girls. Another white cop takes Reed to the hospital, sympathetically tsk-tsking about his injuries. The blame for the terror is laid squarely on two bad and one stupid cop and no one else. That can’t be true, obviously, but the American film industry has not yet figured out how to dramatize widespread police brutality in a genre movie. But genre movies, like thrillers and mysteries, is what Hollywood does best, and Bigelow is one of the most effective directors of such films.  We may have to depend on documentaries and theater for the deeper truth.

About the Author
Miriam Rinn is currently a freelance writer based in NJ, where she has lived for several decades. She worked as a children's book editor, a freelance writer and editor, and a communications manager for a nonprofit organization. She is the author of the children's novel "The Saturday Secret," which was recently selected by PJ Our Way. She has two married sons and four granddaughters.
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