A Gentleman’s Agreement

A Gentleman’s Agreement is a film from 1947 about Phillip Green a writer who is tasked with writing an article on anti-semitism and decides to pretend to be Jewish in order to understand how it works on a personal level. When I first watched the movie I was concerned with how it would handle the issue of anti-semitism and other forms of discrimination as many films, even today, only look at this type of discrimination as obvious and a flaw of individuals without critiquing how the social system continues those ideas. However, to my surprise, the film was tactful in its portrayal of bigotry and made it a point to show how smaller forms of discrimination exist and how that is still a problem. The film covers a lot of forms of bigotry that still exist today and it is startling how many conversations in the film are similar to the ones we have today.

One moment in the film that I found interesting was Phil’s interaction with Ms. Wales after the publishing put out an ad allowing anyone regardless of religious belief could apply. Ms. Wales implies that while she is Jewish she still holds bigoted beliefs and how Jewish people should act a certain way but some don’t. The scene put forth the notion of having internalized antisemitism and how these beliefs can even affect the people that are being targeted.

The film makes a point, especially at the end, that people can be nice and even good but it doesn’t mean that you cant think bigoted things. I saw it especially with how Cathy was far more caught up in the notion of being seen as anti-semitic than consider how her beliefs may still be affected by bigotry or how what she says may not be understanding fully the problem with anti-semitism.

I was pleasantly surprised by the film not just because of how it portrayed anti-semitism and how its perpetuated but also with the characters, they were nice to watch throughout the film and it made the film as a whole more enjoyable to watch. Dave’s character was interesting as well, in many ways he understands Phil and why he decided to approach the topic in this way but he also has lived experience with this form of bigotry and it becomes an interesting conversation about how Phil’s new experiences were ones that Dave has faced his entire lifetime.

I wouldn’t say that the film is perfect in regards to bigotry, its portrayal of women while period-appropriate is still rooted in misogyny, but overall the film provided a far more nuanced stance on anti-semitism than I thought, and it showed just how prevalent anti-semitism was in the United States.

2 thoughts on “A Gentleman’s Agreement

  1. I surely shared the same concerns with you at how such an old, conservative-time film would address such a controversial, prejudice-related subject of anti-Semitism. I would like to add to my shared sense of surprise, on top of the long list of anti-Semitism being reproduced at the individual-level, a large handful of prejudice interactions can be linked to being representative of the institutional and systematic level. Restrictive private institutions such as the honeymoon location hotel and the hiring mishap, preferring Ms. Wales’ Americanized last name over her original Jewish last name are strong examples of such.
    I also found Ms. Wales’ values of prejudice against other Jews, maintaining beliefs of anti-Semitism even though she herself had Jewish ancestry, and prejudice against other groups shocking nonetheless! This reminds me of an issue a lot of my friends and myself criticize in the Catholic Church where conservative priests preach God loves everyone, yet they are highly judgemental and picky in assigning themselves the power to determine what a “right” Christian looks like, or what characteristics constitute them as a “good Christian,” rather than an undesirable one. It was disgusting that she literally turned on her own Jewish origins as soon as she realized Americanizing, assimilating, and abandoning her marginalized identity could easily reconstruct her position to reap the benefits of a high-class, socially “correct” and accepted, white Christian majority member of society instead. Although, Wales’ character shares the same values as Lacey throughout the majority of the movie, but just changed her identity to match that of Lacey’s, justifying better why she holds the anti-Semitic values she does. I agree Dave’s role was so salient and beautifully complementing in the film, aiding his friend Phil to make sense and conceptualize the harsh realities he faced in his research experiment. In such a sudden dive into a marginalized life, which is a great adjustment for a majority, often unknowingly privileged member of society, he acted as a great reflector with Phil and was strong in advising Phil his limitations as a single individual to challenge an institutional, domestic problem.

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