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There are glimmers of BlacKkKlansmans fire in an earlier Best Picture winner about American hate

Photo: John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis/Getty Images

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. With the Academy Awards right around the corner, we’re suggesting the perfect pairings for this year’s Best Picture nominees—movies to watch with, or instead of, each of them.

Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman would be an appropriate Best Picture winner for any number of reasons. It’s one of this year’s strongest nominees. Earlier Lee masterpieces were largely ignored by the Academy. The film serves as an implicit rebuke to Green Book’s fundamentally dishonest coziness. (That last one is arguably the reason it won’t win.) And a BlacKkKlansman victory would beautifully echo and invert one of the most provocative Best Picture winners in Oscar history: 1947’s Gentleman’s Agreement. Directed by Elia Kazan—who would go on to court controversy of another kind by naming names before the House Committee On Un-American Activities—and adapted from Laura Z. Hobson’s novel, this angry exposé would likely provoke ire were it made today, focusing as it does on a privileged white man’s journey to enlightenment. In certain respects, though, it still draws blood, seven decades later. The extent to which its ugliness remains relevant is flat-out depressing, frankly.


BlacKkKlansman, loosely based on real events, tells the story of a black policeman (John David Washington) who poses as a white supremacist, farming out the in-person aspect of his persona to a Jewish colleague (Adam Driver). It’s set in the early ’70s, though Lee makes a point, at the very end, of connecting it to recent events. Gentleman’s Agreement, by contrast, takes place in its own present day, when Jews were still routinely restricted from numerous walks of American life. Assigned to write a piece on anti-Semitism, reporter Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck) eventually decides that the only way for him to understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of bigotry is to pose as a Jew himself. He proceeds to apply for numerous jobs, clubs, and apartments using two different names: his own, and Phil Greenberg. (See also: recent studies involving Airbnb reservations.) Steeled for abuse, he’s nonetheless rocked by the way that previously friendly people seem to recoil when he mentions being Jewish, and tested when his son (11-year-old Dean Stockwell!) suddenly starts getting bullied by the kids at school.

Though it premiered just six months before the formation of Israel, Gentleman’s Agreement doesn’t delve deeply into the matter of Jewish identity. (Sam Jaffe does briefly appears as a scientist who wryly notes that he’s neither religious nor a believer in the concept of race, yet still chooses to identify as Jewish specifically because anti-Semitism exists.) And it bears many of the white-savior hallmarks, sidelining the people actually being oppressed in order to lionize a noble member of the oppressive class. At one point, Green’s Jewish secretary (June Havoc), who’s been passing as Gentile, expresses alarm at Green’s plan to fight for diversity in hiring, telling him, “It’s no fun being the fall guy for the kike-y ones.” (The line seems meant to have been shocking, even then.) At the same time, though, Kazan’s script, cowritten with the great Jewish playwright Moss Hart, often goes for the jugular, targeting not just openly hateful bigots but their ostensibly right-thinking enablers. Much of the film’s drama concerns Green’s relationship with fiancée, Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), who claims to support the project but gets very anxious at the idea that her family and friends in Connecticut will think Philip is actually Jewish, and spurn them as a result. Indeed, the whole film anticipates Seinfeld’s refrain regarding being gay: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”


Granted, there’s some cognitive dissonance in hearing Gregory Peck sarcastically snarl things like, “You’ve only assured [my son that] he’s the most wonderful of all creatures: a white Christian American,” given that not a single black face appears in this entire movie (set mostly in New York City, no less). But that’s what makes Gentleman’s Agreement such an ideal double-bill with BlacKkKlansman, which attacks similar ideas from the opposite angle and tackles the full breadth of white supremacy. It’s 2018’s blistering update on the tentative steps that Hollywood took in 1947. History repeating itself in this particular way at the Oscars wouldn’t be so bad.

Availability: Gentleman’s Agreement is available to rent or purchase from the major digital services. It can also be obtained on DVD from Amazon, Netflix, or possibly your local video store/library.


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