Amid outcry, Academy Museum to revise exhibit on Hollywood's Jewish roots
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Amid outcry, Academy Museum to revise exhibit on Hollywood's Jewish roots
The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, May 6, 2021. (Alex Welsh/The New York Times)

LOS ANGELES, CALIF.- When the popular Academy Museum of Motion Pictures opened in 2021 with exhibits celebrating the diversity of the film industry, the museum was criticized for having largely omitted one group: the Jewish founders of Hollywood.

Last month, the museum aimed to correct that oversight by opening a permanent new exhibition highlighting the formative role that Jewish immigrants such as Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer played in creating the American film industry.

But the new exhibition, which turns a sometimes critical eye on Hollywood’s founders, ignited an uproar. An open letter that a group called United Jewish Writers sent to the museum on Monday objected to the use of words including “tyrant,” “oppressive,” “womanizer” and “predator” in its wall text, called the exhibit “antisemitic” and described it as “the only section of the museum that vilifies those it purports to celebrate.”

In response to the growing outcry, the Academy Museum said in a statement Monday that it had “heard the concerns from members of the Jewish community” and that it was “committed to making changes to the exhibition to address them.”

“We will be implementing the first set of changes immediately — they will allow us to tell these important stories without using phrasing that may unintentionally reinforce stereotypes,” the museum said.

The museum announced the changes just before receiving the open letter, which was signed by more than 300 Hollywood professionals. “While we acknowledge the value in confronting Hollywood’s problematic past, the despicable double standard of the Jewish Founders exhibit, blaming only the Jews for that problematic past, is unacceptable and, whether intentional or not, antisemitic,” said the letter. “We call on the Academy Museum to thoroughly redo this exhibit so that it celebrates the Jewish founders of Hollywood with the same respect and enthusiasm granted to those celebrated throughout the rest of the museum.”

The signatories included entertainment executive Casey Wasserman, actor David Schwimmer and television writer Amy Sherman-Palladino.

“This is not unconscious bias, this is conscious bias,” one of the signers, Lawrence Bender, who produced Quentin Tarantino’s films, said in an interview. “It feels like a hatchet job on the Jews.”

The exhibition, which opened last month, drew on the work of Neal Gabler, who wrote the well-respected “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood.” It included a section about the founding of Hollywood studios, a look at the evolution of Los Angeles and a documentary, “From the Shtetl to the Studio: The Jewish Story of Hollywood,” narrated by Ben Mankiewicz, the TCM host.

There were some positive reviews. While criticizing the absence of archival objects, for example, The Wall Street Journal said that the exhibition “should quell the restive voices calling for explicitly Jewish representation within this museum and some acknowledgment of the industry’s earliest history.”

But negative responses soon emerged amid heightened sensitivity about antisemitism in the wake of the Oct. 7 attack on Israel and the war in the Gaza Strip. TheWrap reported on growing criticisms last week, and a piece in Los Angeles Magazine headlined “Hiding in Plain Sight: How the Academy Museum Relegated Hollywood’s Jewish Founders to the Ghetto,” reported that Alma Har’el, an Israeli American film director who had served on the museum’s inclusivity committee, resigned after touring the exhibition.

Some critics took issue with what they saw as the exhibition’s implication that Hollywood’s Jewish pioneers had discriminated against other marginalized groups as a way to assimilate, noting its discussion of blackface in “The Jazz Singer.”

“Nothing is said of D.W. Griffith’s or Walt Disney’s infamously racist depictions or questionable leadership methods,” Keetgi Kogan, a Hollywood writer and producer, wrote to the museum. “It is only the Jewish founders who are accused of oppressive control, of being white washers, tyrants, womanizers, predators, social climbers, and of course, racists.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said that “we’re both shocked and surprised that the Academy made an effort to get this right and somehow seems to have gotten it wrong.”

The controversy over the exhibition came to a head two weeks after the Academy announced that the museum’s director and president, Jacqueline Stewart, would be stepping down. Stewart, a film historian and the recipient of a 2021 MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, will return to the University of Chicago, where she is a professor. She will be succeeded by Amy Homma, the museum’s chief audience officer, who serves on the Anti-Defamation League’s entertainment leadership council.

Academy officials said Stewart’s departure was unrelated to the exhibition. In an interview, Stewart said that it had been “a huge learning experience for us,” and added that the museum had not intended to emphasize the negative, but to convey “a sense of joy and exploration and innovation.”

The museum said it would convene “an advisory group of experts from leading museums focused on the Jewish community, civil rights, and the history of other marginalized groups.”

It has agreed to meet with some of the critics. Jennifer Levine, a producer, said she has an appointment scheduled for the week after next, having been “heartbroken and saddened” after visiting the exhibition on opening day.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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