Director James Gray’s new film Armageddon Time is based on his Jewish-American childhood. Banks Repeta plays Gray’s younger self, Graff’s mother is played by Anne Hathaway, and his Jewish grandfather, Aaron Rabinowitz, is played by Anthony Hopkins. Who, notably, is not Jewish.
After criticism from some fans, Gray pushed back vigorously. He said he took “huge offense” at the idea that he shouldn’t cast Hopkins. Critics, he argued, were looking for someone with a Yiddish accent to play a stereotypical Jewish grandfather, though that was “not what my grandfather was like.”
Gray’s got a point; surely a Jewish filmmaker should be allowed to cast whoever he wants to play his own grandfather! But, at the same time, Gray’s defensive response plays into Jewish stereotypes and suggests that his critics aren’t entirely wrong. The fact is that Hollywood often struggles to portray Jewish people who aren’t Jewish caricatures, and that’s partly because of the way it shies away from letting Jewish actors play Jewish roles.
The history of Black and POC representation in film is more straightforwardly ugly than the history of white Jewish representation. The movie industry has a history of casting white people to play…well, everyone, including non-white people.
White actors put on blackface and played sinister, violent, ugly Black people in the viciously racist 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation. Mickey Rooney donned make-up and a myopic squint to caper around as a racist caricature of a Japanese photograph in the 1958 romantic comedy Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Scarlett Johansson played a Japanese woman put into a White cyborg body in 2017’s Ghost in the Shell. And so on.
Today, there is a general consensus that casting White actors to play Black and POC roles is racist and discriminatory. At worst, it involves vile racist caricatures, as in the case of Rooney. At best, it contributes to an industry that has traditionally reserved the marquee spots for white actors, leaving non-white actors to scramble for bit parts. An Asian woman could have been given an opportunity in Ghost in the Shell. Instead, the creators decided to add yet another line to Scarlett Johansson’s resume.
Scarlett Johansson is Jewish herself, which highlights a key difference between white Jewish actors and POC (including POC Jewish actors, like Maya Rudolph and Amber Rose Revah). Jewish performers like Johansson, Gal Gadot, Natalie Portman, Paul Rudd, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Harrison Ford don’t have trouble getting work in high-profile films. That’s because white Jewish performers are generally seen as white, and so can be cast in the majority of Hollywood films that have white leads.
Jewish identity being subsumed in whiteness has some downsides too, though. Specifically, in Hollywood, characters and actors often aren’t recognizable as Jewish unless they are white—and unless they are stereotypically nerdy or devout.
Johansson provides a good example. In the 2001 film Ghost World, she plays the glamorous blonde Rebecca as a contrast to best friend Enid (played by Jewish actor Thora Birch.) Enid is presented as awkward and alienated, and that is subtly linked to her Judaism. Rebecca is more conventional, and one character even refers to her as “Aryan.” But of course, Johansson, in real life, is Jewish too! Because she doesn’t look stereotypically “Jewish”, though, her Jewishness onscreen is erased.
Very attractive, heroic-looking Jewish people like Johansson, and Harrison Ford are often cast as non-Jewish characters. The opposite rarely happens. Heroic gentile actors aren’t usually cast as Jews (Daniel Craig in Defiance and Munich is a notable exception) The result is that the prevalence of Jewish actors coexists with a relatively narrow range of Jewish representation. Jewish actors can portray glamorous Amazon warriors like Wonder Woman or brooding bruisers like the Punisher—but only as long as the characters are Greek or Italian or anything but Jewish.
You can see this logic in Gray’s comments too. He says that asking for a Jewish person to play his grandfather means people want a stereotype. But a Jewish actor doesn’t have to be a Jewish caricature! Daniel Day-Lewis, as just one example, is Jewish, and arguably conforms less to Hollywood Jewish stereotypes than the non-Jewish Anthony Hopkins does.
The fact that Gray is Jewish himself and is telling his own story is important to keep in mind. If he says Anthony Hopkins is the performer who reminded him most of his Jewish grandfather, who are we to contradict him?
But especially in a time of increasing antisemitism, I think it is reasonable for critics, fans, and casting directors to think a bit more about Jewish representation. Casting Jewish people in Jewish roles, or letting Jewish actors acknowledge their Jewishness in more roles, even in passing, could be helpful in challenging Jewish stereotypes, especially in the long run.
So yes, Anthony Hopkins could be Jewish. So could Harrison Ford. So could Zoë Kravitz. So could Wonder Woman. A blanket rule that only Jewish actors can play Jewish roles isn’t helpful. But Hollywood could and should do more in casting choices and writing to acknowledge that there’s no one way to look Jewish or be Jewish.