Gentleman’s Agreement

Gentleman’s Agreement. 20th Century Fox 1947.

Before watching the movie:

I’m unclear whether the anti-Semitism the main character wants to expose is within a particular institution, or more broadly, within society at large, like the seminal Black Like Me, or less seminal White Chicks.

While there are people, perhaps even people who would not be considered eugenicists or race-nationalists, who consider “Jewish” a morphological race, the physical characteristics are very subtle, to the point where I’m not sure how a Gentile reporter would pose as a Jewish man other than introducing himself to people who don’t know him with a “hi, I’m Jewish, by the way!” A long game approach would probably be to get a new job somewhere and drop big hints, but that would point back to “within a single institution”. I feel like I got out of my depth three paragraphs ago and I should just let the movie tell its own story.

After watching the movie:

Widowed journalist Phillip Schuyler Green moves his mother and young son to New York City for his new job with a major magazine. His first assignment from Mr. Minify is “a piece on anti-Semitism”, a human interest story, not a facts and figures study. Philip has difficulty cracking an angle on it until he realizes that all his other greatest pieces were based on having lived the subject, so why not just start telling people “Phil Green” is Jewish and write about the results? Even among his peers at the magazine, word gets around fast and reshapes his workplace. His secretary reveals that her application under her real name was refused, and also belies concerns about “the wrong Jews” ruining it for them. The doctor treating his mother makes snide comments about a Jewish specialist until Phil mentions being a Jew himself. The janitor tries to warn Phil against openly putting a Jewish name on his mailbox. But the real sticking point turns out to be the friction caused with his girlfriend, who proposed that the magazine run an anti-Semitism story in the first place, trying to keep peace with her country-club set hometown.

There is a natural myopia to the situations of people from different backgrounds. We have a vague notion that people in different walks of life may have it a little better or a little worse than us, but everything is basically the same, it must be the same because we’re all equal, everyone says so except the rabble rousers. It is particularly easy to fall into this worldview when one’s own circumstances are fairly comfortable and to believe others’ experiences are disproportionately unfair would make one less comfortable.

The principal remedy for this situation is to earnestly listen to others’ descriptions of their experiences and internalize the notion that life experiences are not universal. (There are multiple Jewish characters who do get to tell their own stories here.) In some cases, it’s possible to get a firsthand taste of what it’s like, but we as a species are good at making arbitrary divisions and some perspectives are much easier to reach than others. Phil Green makes the case on anti-Semitism. Transgendered people can report on how they were treated differently as one gender or another. John Howard Griffin’s study of the black/white divide was a little clumsy, but enabled him and others to see more clearly all the same. I can’t see this kind of story being done so easily as a word in someone’s ear (no makeup, prosthetics, or actual permanent body modifications) with any other identity but homosexuality, which (as Crossfire demonstrates) couldn’t have been made in the 40s.

I don’t know if it’s from how society has evolved or how film pacing has evolved, but where critics of the day saw a script that demonstrates its point rather than preaching, I saw at least as many moralizing speeches as illustrative scenes. They’re beautifully written and usually brief and simple, but they were what stood out to be the most. The quiet statements of right and wrong and fault and action. The illustrating actions seemed more in service of advancing the story to the next teachable moment, but the speeches were the lessons eloquently put.

I spent a lot of the movie worried about the end of the experiment. While being able to put on a different identity is useful for understanding someone else’s world, it also means he can take it off again, and if done poorly, could come across as colonizing Judaism for an article. But Phil is a man of unwavering principle, and across a few different speeches he lays out that his entire point is that there should be no practical difference to anyone who might be about to assert one. If anything, my biggest problem with the aftermath was that the tone seemed a little less “I recognize that my perspective has the most clout and I choose to use that for good” and more “this is my burden to bear, my fight to fight”. Once someone who believes in the ideals of fair treatment and equality learns to recognize the places where it doesn’t exist, some social protest fueled by righteous anger is appropriate, but Phil seems determined to be a martyr for the cause.

I think one of the messages in the background is at least just as important today as it was when it was used as apologia for the existence of the article and by extension the film. The response to the notion that making noise only causes trouble and it’s best to keep quiet and wait for things to get better, which is that while those of the cause of equality stay silent, the Gerald LK Smiths and Theodore Bilbos get to have all the say. We let them have the best words. The fundamental message is one we will always need to be reminded of: that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for the good to do nothing.

Maybe the next one will be Everybody’s Century.

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