Movies with racist portrayals of African Americans haven’t hurt their Oscar chances much–consider “Secretariat” or “Million Dollar Baby” or any number of well-meaning racially-charged movies that had problematic representations of African Americans (“The Help,” “The Blind Side,” “Crash,” “Driving Miss Daisy”). But anti-Semitism is a different story. Remember the campaign against “A Beautiful Mind” because its character John Nash was an alleged anti-Semite?
Now here comes Baz Luhrmann’s lurid “The Great Gatsby,” which, true to the source material and the times in which it’s set, features an unseemly stereotype of a sleazy, money-grubbing corrupt Jewish gangster named Meyer Wolfsheim, a character who has long been associated with Fitzgerald’s own anti-Semitism. But Luhrmann doesn’t do the character any favors, painting him no less sympathetically or with any more complexity than present times might have required.
Inspired by real-life Jewish gangster Arnold Rothstein (who fixed the 1919 World Series, as does the character in the film), Wolfsheim, as described by Tablet Mag’s Rachel Shukert,
in a piece called “Gatsby’s Jew,” is a man with “dark complexion, mangled English, copious nose hairs, and cufflinks fashioned from human molars (a cannibalistic touch worthy of a dandyish Bond villain at his most feral).” In the film, Luhrmann keeps Wolfsheim’s tooth jewelry as notable symbol of the character’s exoticism and his underlying savagery.
If Jewish audiences might find the presence of Wolfsheim unpalatable, the casting of Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan in the role only further raises charges of not just anti-Semitism, but a more broad-ranging xenophobia that is conspicuously relevant to current audiences.
As Shukert notes, “Bachchan’s Wolfsheim seems not so much recognizably Jewish as unplaceably exotic, an Orientalist construct so vague as to offend no one (or everyone, depending on how you look at it).” Not unlike the portrayal of Ben Kingsley, also of Indian descent, as The Mandarin in “Iron Man 3.”
A more damning suggestion comes from Flavorwire, which points out, “In this post-9/11 world, the brown-skinned South Asian man is as terrifying to reactionary movie-going Middle Americans as a Jewish banker was to the wealthy elite of the 1920s.”
Let the Oscar smear season begin.