Jews outraged by anti-Semitic tropes in exhibition at Academy Museum

In a series of explosive letters from prominent Jewish members to the leadership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a new exhibition at the Academy Museum dedicated to the Jewish founders of Hollywood is criticized. It makes use of “anti-Semitic stereotypes” and focuses on the founders' mistakes rather than their achievements.

In a statement to TheWrap on Monday, the Academy acknowledged the criticism and promised to make “quick and considered” adjustments:

“Some members of the Jewish community have expressed their concerns, and [we] examine how best to address these concerns while providing an authentic understanding of these complex individuals and the times in which they lived. As part of this process, we continue to engage with the community members who have provided us with constructive feedback and welcome these conversations. We hope to move quickly and thoughtfully through this process.”

The permanent exhibition, “Hollywoodland: Jewish Founders and the Making of a Movie Capital,” opened in mid-May. It focuses on studio founders such as the Warner brothers, led by Jack (née Jacob) and Harry (née Hirsch Wonsal) Warner, and also includes Harry Cohn at Columbia, Marcus Loew and Louis B. Mayer at MGM, and Jesse Lasky and Adolph Zukor at Paramount, among others. The exhibition was created in response to criticism that the $480 million museum, which opened in 2021, had completely ignored the Jews who founded the industry.

Now that the exhibition on the third floor has opened, there are prominent voices criticizing the result.

“The focus is not on the founder's achievements, but on his sins,” says one of the letters to AMPAS CEO Bill Kramer, Academy Museum President Jacqueline Stewart, who retired last week, and exhibition curator Dara Jaffe.

The letter, from Patrick Moss, co-chair of the WGA's Jewish Writers Committee, continues: “The words used to describe these men are: 'frugal,' 'nepotism,' 'noxious,' 'womanizer,' 'oppressive,' 'brazen,' 'tyrant,' 'cynical,' 'whitewashed,' 'predator,' . . . ' and so on.

“THIS EXHIBIT IS COMPLIANT in the hatred of American Jews by using anti-Semitic tropes and dog whistles.”

The scathing review is one of six letters or articles TheWrap received from prominent members of the Hollywood community, including Moss, filmmakers Kimberly Peirce and Alma Ha'rel — both members of the museum's inclusion committee — showrunner Keetgi Kogan and television writer Michael Kaplan, who, in separate letters, reached remarkably similar conclusions about the exhibition. Andy Lewis also wrote about the topic in The Ankler over the weekend.

“You are effectively blaming the prejudice, racism and misogyny of the 20th century on the Jewish founders of the film industry,” Kogan wrote. “Your thesis seems to be that these Jewish immigrants were greedy social climbers who chose to integrate into American society on the backs of exploited women and people of color. What's more, you are claiming that it was these Jewish immigrants alone who created, for their own benefit, a fictional version of America free of discrimination that they whitewashed.”

He concluded: “It's almost as if, instead of celebrating the birth of the industry, the Academy is apologizing to the public for having to reveal a dark corner of its history that it would have preferred to keep hidden.”

A visit to the exhibition takes you into a narrow, nine-meter-wide gallery with panels dedicated to each of the studios founded in the first decades of the 20th century: Warner Bros, MGM, RKO, Universal, Paramount, Fox and Columbia, with descriptions of the Jewish men behind each of them. The letter writers criticized the text of the panels, which is written in English and Spanish.

“It was a time of oppression,” says the introductory panel to “Studio Origins,” which explains the studio system in which eight major companies “dominated the industry.”

* In a description of less than 100 words, Harry Cohn is described as a “tyrant and predator” whose office is “modeled after Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and built to intimidate anyone who enters it.”

* In a similarly succinct panel, Jack Warner is described as “brazen and irreverent” and a “womanizer” who was “thrifty” in shaping Warner Bros culture.

* The Universal panel describes how Carl Laemmle rose from errand boy to studio head, “where his kindness and nepotism earned him the nickname 'Uncle Carl.'”

* The 1927 film The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, is highlighted as the first widely released film with synchronized sound, but the synopsis points to the film's “blackface,” which “continues a centuries-old tradition in the United States of caricaturing and dehumanizing black people.”

Jewish Exhibition of the Academy - Studio Origins
Academy Jewish Exhibition - Jazz Singer

“I think there is a certain amount of anti-Semitism, whether conscious or not, but also a presentism,” Kaplan said as he visited the gallery with a reporter. “Some of these views are valid, but the double standards and the lack of context make many of us angry.”

Kaplan pointed out that none of the other exhibitions challenge their protagonists to criticism in this way: “This exhibition shows the villains. Every other part of the museum shows the victims.”

Even more ironic is that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the museum's parent organization, was originally conceived by Louis B. Mayer and founded in 1927 by a group of moguls and industry leaders.

As with many areas of the museum, a deliberately progressive tone dominates, reminding visitors how marginalized communities were absent from the film industry and how stereotypes perpetuated racist norms. For example, a short three-sentence panel mentioning the beginning of the Western film notes: “However, most Westerns – some of which are mentioned in this gallery – contained offensive depictions of Indigenous characters, often portrayed by non-Indigenous actors.”

Jewish Exhibition of the Academy - Western Genre

In a connecting room, a documentary narrated by TCM host Ben Mankiewicz plays, and a large video map shows where the studios were built as they began to transform Los Angeles.

The documentary traces the humble beginnings of the Jewish studio founders and points to the widespread anti-Semitism of the time. But it also notes that the moguls perpetuated racism, saying: “Hollywood films … excluded, stereotyped or demonized people of color and LGBT+ characters in general, and perpetuated abilityism and sexism with few exceptions. In Hollywood, becoming an American meant adopting and reflecting oppressive beliefs and representations.”

Oscar-nominated producer Lawrence Bender also visited the galleries and was unnerved. The Jewish moguls who built Hollywood “loved movies, they loved making movies,” he said. “There's no sign of that here.”

In a climate of rising anti-Semitism, he said, the exhibition was an additional blow. “It feels like one more thing,” he said. “Are there more important things in the world? Sure. Is it the most important thing? Maybe not. But – it's one more thing. And this museum presents history. What's missing is a true love of cinema. Where does it say they loved making films?”

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