Written by Zachary Brenner
When I think of my aspiration to become an influential filmmaker within the system of Hollywood, I often think of the question, do Jews run Hollywood?. What comes to mind immediately are names such as Charlie Chaplin, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, and Joel and Ethan Coen. To me, these figures are perceived as highly powerful, which might lend to the bias that because one can name five prominent directors who are Jewish, Jews must run Hollywood. And further, do Jewish men run Hollywood? The reflexive answer is, Yes, although exploration of the question is necessary before succumbing to assumption.
What qualifies someone as “Jewish”? Are they observant? Are they culturally Jewish? It seems to be a popular assumption that someone is Jewish when they are not, maybe because they are influential, white, wealthy, and have a last name that could be arguably “Jewish sounding”. There are some instances where an assumption of a “Jew running Hollywood” might end up being accurate, and other cases where it is ludicrous. In any case, assumption of anyone’s identity is problematic at best.
One instance would be the ever-powerful Weinstein Brothers, of the Weinstein Company. Since their creation of Miramax Films in 1979 and spanning until their present day leadership of the Weinstein Company, their films have received 303 Oscar nominations and 75 victories.
A ludicrous instance of an assumption that Jews run Hollywood would be a part of that same idea that the Weinsteins run Hollywood. This is a case of two Jews running a part of the establishment, but also engaging in other Jewish spaces outside of the industry. They are both active in the Jewish community and recognize their upbringing in a Jewish household. But, I don’t know whether I, as a Jew, would identify with all of their values. Even if I do identify with their work in the film industry, it doesn’t mean that our identities as Jews who happen to be interested in film should be conflated.
Secondly, what does it mean to “run” Hollywood? An easily measurable way to determine if someone can actually have a foothold in the corporate film world is by how many movies they produce and how much money is made from them. However, Hollywood filmmaking often requires hundreds of individuals with various technical and creative abilities working together. Often, if one of those individuals were to be absent from the film crew, the movie would turn out very differently. So, I would argue that you can never determine whether Jews run Hollywood or not, because one cannot determine how much influence a single figure actually has on a film, whether it be the director, director of photography, producer, writer, grip, or electrician. Further, one cannot determine whether the majority of people working in the industry are, in fact, Jewish, because there is no accurate measure for the “Jewishness” of a person. The Weinsteins are just one element of a larger force that continually produces influential and lucrative films.
According to the LA Times, only 22 percent of Americans believe that the industry is run by Jews, down from a poll taken in 1964 that claimed that 50 percent of individuals believed that Jews ran Hollywood. The article then lists many influential Hollywood producers who are Jews. Among them, leaders from Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney, Sony Pictures, Warner Bros., CBS, and MGM. The article even addresses that the CBS Corporation Chief Executive Leslie Moonves is, “so Jewish his great uncle was the first prime minister of Israel”. I fact checked this, and it is indeed true: Leslie Moonves is related to David Ben Gurion.
A writer reacting to these polls, Joel Stein, was upset by the perceived decrease of a Jewish dominance in Hollywood. He claims he has, “…never been so upset by a poll in [his] life”. What I take issue with is this most-likely Jewish writer taking immense pride in the idea that Jews run Hollywood. That makes me think about my own career aspirations.
Let’s say Jews do run Hollywood. Am I bothered by the idea that Jews just fell into a position of power? On the one hand, yes, I am upset because I believe that Jews worked tirelessly to adapt to American culture and steer away from the label of “outsider”. However, how can I be upset by Jews falling into power in Hollywood when among my most influential directors, many are Jews? Perhaps those Jews would not have been filmmakers had they not easily obtained their positions. And to be honest, yeah, it would be great to just “fall into power” in order to start my career. Still, I know this is a highly problematic way to gain a public voice.
Modern filmmakers such as the Coen Brothers, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Charlie Kaufman, and Bryan Singer are all highly influential. Shouldn’t I be excited to carry on this legacy? To be honest, I feel guilty about being excited. By being a part of this legacy, I am potentially becoming a part of a history of an established, capitalist system that hands out power to certain individuals, usually men. They have perhaps worked less tirelessly to achieve their power compared to their peers such as women, people of color, queer individuals, or non-English speaking individuals.
If Jewish directors stop “running” Hollywood (or, rather, stop getting all the good projects and recognition), I wouldn’t be upset. Now, I’m not saying that Jews (many of whom identify as cultural Jews) do, in fact, get all of the popular movies to direct. I am simply basing this argument off of common stereotypes I hear. I don’t think that being Jewish is the only mark of a great filmmaker, or of how they gained their success. The mark of a great filmmaker is thoughtfulness, persistence, ambition, and creativity. If Jewish directors stopped getting preferential treatment, it would not especially bother me because I am not an aspiring filmmaker as a Jew, but as a person looking to make an influence on the world, whether it be with my Jewish identity in mind or not.
Let’s say that Jewish individuals worked very hard and earned their place in Hollywood by making good films, studying business, and purusing interpersonal connections with powerful people. That is no excuse for the lack of progress that the film industry has displayed. Just because Jews have been disenfranchised in the past, does not mean that all Jews can continue to claim that they are underrepresented and disempowered. Specifically in Hollywood, Jews are in a unique position of power. Many people are desperately trying to get a powerful foot in the door but the lack of progress by the predominantly white (and maybe Jewish) men leading Hollywood are not doing enough to open up the space for consistently diverse voices. How many movies a year are actually about non-males—and of those about non-males, how many are non-white? How many movies pass the Bechdel test, which stipulates that at least two named female characters hold a conversation over a couple minutes long that doesn’t pertain to a man? You’d be surprised how many mainstream movies fail this test. How many non-white actors and actresses have been nominated for an Oscar? Whether or not the blame falls upon the voters for the Oscars, there is a significant problem with homogenized storylines in Hollywood.
Jews in Hollywood, as perceived influential and lauded individuals, must recognize their privilege. Jews must not hold on to the idea that a history of anti-semitism in Hollywood, such as during the years of the blacklist, remains a constant threat. Jews will survive. And now, Jews must stand in solidarity with other groups of individuals who share histories of oppression.
As an aspiring, Jewish filmmaker, I must address my discomfort with the idea that Jews run Hollywood because it reminds me that I am a privileged individual–and, to be honest, I often feel less sympathetic of people who are privileged. I frequently respect individuals who struggle to claim their success more than people born with greater opportunity for success in the capitalist workplace. But, I am Jewish and I am privileged. It’s time for me to confront those realities and vow to change the corrupt system by allowing for space for other groups to have an equal shot. I must play to my strengths as a human with unique opinions and privilege. That’s all we, as Jews who have achieved certain advantages, can do. This is the point of privilege–not to make more money and buy fancier cars, but to realize what is corrupt and infuriating about the system and change it for others who have been historically disenfranchised by systems of power.