A Cure For Intolerance
Showtime film explores the black-Jewish youth initiative that grew out of the Crown Heights riots.
“Crown Heights” and the short documentary “Increasing the Peace” air on Showtime Monday, Feb. 16,9 p.m.; Tuesday, Feb. 24,8 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 29, 10:15 a.m.; and Saturday, March 6, 12:30 p.m.
“Crown Heights,” a new film about a positive outgrowth of the 1991 Brooklyn race riots, begins and ends with scenes from the subway. To the filmmaker, Jeremy Kagan, the underground transit system provides an apt metaphor for the ways New Yorkers – and by extension whole nations – avoid meaningful interaction. “Everyone packs themselves into the subways, ” Kagan, a 58-year-old New York-area native, said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. “And you have every culture squeezed together, moving together and never relating to each other.”
That kind of communal isolation fueled the unrest that consumed Crown Heights in August 1991, when a car in the motorcade of the Lubavitch Grand Rebbe struck two African-American children, killing one. In the days of chaos that followed, a Jewish man was fatally stabbed, others were beaten in the streets, stores were looted and homes vandalized. Out of the flames, a few community activists kindled a flicker of hope in the form of an interracial youth initiative called Project CURE! (The acronym stands for communication, understanding, respect, and education.) “Crown Heights,” which stars Mario Van Peebles (“The Hebrew Hammer,” “Ali”) and Howie Mandel (“St. Elsewhere”), tells the story of CURE!’s formation and specifically its effect on two boys, Yudi and T.J., who forge a friendship across color lines.
A Showtime original picture that draws from actual events and characters, “Crown Heights” premieres on Monday, Feb. 16, at 9 p.m. The 90-minute film, based on a story by the journalist Michael D’Antonio and a screenplay by Toni Ann Johnson, is being billed as part of the cable network’s celebration of Black History Month. But to the director, the Crown Heights riots and efforts like Project CURE! offer timeless lessons. “The whole concept of enemies is such an incredible problem for us as human beings,” Kagan, who directed the film version of Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen,” said. “We think of everybody else as ‘them’ and then there’s ‘us.'” “If people recognized that we’re all made of the same stuff,” he added, “then we can resolve conflicts. That’s the essence of this piece. It’s important for us to be reminded of that continuously.”
The Showtime film airs just weeks after a play of the same name opened in New York, drawing fire from Jewish organizations and some critics for the way it fictionalizes events and lays ultimate blame for the riots on the chasidic community for allegedly leaving the 7-year-old accident victim, Gavin Cato, to die. A theater group associated with the controversial political activist Lenora Fulani and directed by her political ally Fred Newman, who co-wrote the show, is producing the musical drama. Although its creators say the play aims to foster dialogue between blacks and Jews, it gives full voice to the rumors, suspicions and stereotypes that fomented riotous rage. The same negative assumptions surface in Showtime’s “Crown Heights.” But with the film’s focus on real-life resolution, negativity dissolves into mutual respect, if not complete understanding.
“Crown Heights” follows the efforts of a charismatic, streetwise chasid, Dovid “Dr. Laz” Lazerson (Mandel), and a more serious-minded spiritual leader and youth organizer, Paul Richards (Van Peebles). Armed with bullhorns, Laz and Richards head out to clear the streets of looters and angry gangs: “Young people, don’t be part of the problem … get off the streets,” Richards says. Leaning from the passenger-side window, Laz calls out: “Dovid Stein and Simcha Levy, go home before I call your parents!” Frustrated by the violence, they agree to organize a teen summit in the mixed African American, Caribbean American and Jewish neighborhood. At the first meeting, questions about dress and grooming give way to accusations and insults. Rather than confronting the contentions, the film highlights similarities. Both groups quote the Bible with ease; both wear a kind of uniform, be it black suits or high-top sneakers.
But it turns out that one of the most fertile areas of common ground is the basketball court. Exhibition games – including a climactic face-off at a Knicks halftime break – become a centerpiece of Project CURE!’s activities. Among the young recruits are Yudi Simon (Jeremy Blackman), whose father was attacked in the riots, and T.J. Moses (DeQuan Henderson), who becomes embittered when police frisk him and his mother as they make their way to the corner bakery. More than anger and mistrust, the pair share a passion for rap music. Together with Laz, Richards and a back-up band – and with their parents’ encouragement – the boys perform original songs and dance routines with a signature theme: “What we gonna do? Increase the peace! How we gonna do it? Decrease the heat!”
Ultimately, communal and personal strains fray the boys’ friendship, but as a brief companion documentary titled “Increasing the Peace,” shows, their bond remains strong. Twelve years after their first meeting, Yudi, now a musician and metalsmith, visits T.J., his wife and their two children in Albany. “I love T,” Yudi says. T.J. affectionately refers to Yudi as limy dog.” The two try to recreate their teenage dance moves, an effort that T.J. suggests will send them to the hospitaL The 15-minute film also features interviews with Lazerson and Green, who give cautiously optimistic updates of intergroup relations. The son of a Reform rabbi from Mount Vernon, N.Y., Kagan got a crash course in chasidism when he worked on the 1981 film “The Chosen.” The experience inspired an enduring interest in Jewish mysticism, he said.
In making “Crown Heights,” Kagan steered clear of unrealistically happy endings, choosing instead to underscore his favorite line from the film: “Peace is a long-term investment.” He replaced the fanfare that must have accompanied the CURE! appearance at Madison Square Garden with a more subtle finish – one inspired by a trip on a Manhattan train during filming. (Much of “Crown Heights” was shot in Toronto.) “I was waiting for the subway,” Kagan recalled, “and I thought, ‘Oh yeah. Here it is.” In the film’s final scene, Yudi and T.J. stand facing each other across the train tracks. When Yudi breaks into their dance routine, T.J. joins in. Soon both boys are spinning on the floor, baffling onlookers – including some actual commuters.
In Kagan’s mind, the scene symbolizes how overcoming personal discomfort is key to conflict resolution. “There are challenges ahead,” Kagan said, “but people have to be willing to take some chances.” Public dancing can be embarrassing, the director said. “It’s also kind of delicious.”