An exercise in the lines of cultural sensitivity (on ‘An Education’ and ‘Six degrees of Separation’)

Went to see Lone Scherfig‘s film ‘An Education’, based on an autobiographical article by the English journalist Lynn Barber, (in the film her name in Jenny, not Lynn), about her 16-year-old self’s inappropriate relationship with David a much older man, based in 1961.  I really enjoyed the film and afterwards went online and read some reviews.  (Call me strange, but I never read film reviews before I see a movie, only afterwards.  Film is the only medium I do that with.  I’ll happily read reviews about books, exhibitions, music and tv shows before I consume them, but never film.)

As well as glowing reviews, I also began to read how the film was criticised by some as being antisemitic, due to the emphasis in the script of how two characters in particular (the dad and headmistress), with the former viewing Jews as being “wandering” (a euphemism for being aimless in life), and the latter as “Jesus killers”.  Both say these things in seeming protection of Jenny against being involved with boys they think would hinder her chances of entering Oxford University.  The message of the characters was that Jews could not be trusted, and apparently the narrative seems to vindicate this prejudice by the eventual trajectory of the plot. (I won’t spoil the film by giving away the what happens.)

I admit I did not think of the film as being antisemitic until I read the review, and then I thought, yes, the film could easily have existed just as strongly without those references to perceived Jewishness, as such ideas were not at all central to the storyline and therefore were varnish rather than necessary substance that could easily have been edited out.  But then it begs the question, why were those references left in, which encourages a more rounded interpretation.

David, the older man in Jenny’s life, is Jewish, and he is different to everyone else in the film in stark ways.  He is rich, handsome, mysterious, cultured, spontaneous, humorous, and takes risks.  In Jenny’s life he is different from anyone else she has ever met.  The father is a bumbling vague anti-Semitic who quickly puts his prejudices to one side when he realises the benefits  David could offer his young daughter, (a rich comfortable life and connections at Oxford uni).  The headmistress in contrast is much harsher, consistent and confident in her  bigotry and is portrayed as cold and heartless by the end of the film, in opposition to the father’s clumsy ignorance which is portrayed in a sympathetic way, rather than sinister.

This film deals with race in much the same way as John Guare’s ‘Six degrees of separation’, which is also based on a true story.  That is a play/film I have been slightly uneasy about in race terms, due to one interpretation of the film simply being “don’t trust black people“.  The script though is obviously more complex than that, as it also exposes the hypocrisy of the white middle class American family, who embrace this black young man into their lives when they think they will get a lot of cultural kudos in return, (they are falsely led to believe the young man is Sidney Poitier’s son).  ‘An Education’ is very similar; it exposes the hypocrisy of the English middle class family in being tolerant of someone and encouraging an inappropriate liason, just because they (falsely) think they will eventually get financial reward (by David marrying their daughter). 

Whilst at the same time both films do comment on the “ethnic” con-artist as an individual (Jewish David in ‘An Education‘ and Black Paul in ‘Six degrees of separation‘), and both films actively play on the relationship between the races, both films also (in complex ways) comment on the hypocrisy of the aspirations of the white (wasp) middle classes.  It is at this point that both films can not be critiqued as one dimensionally antisemitic or racist, as they are both also judging the white (wasp) families that get seduced by the  idea of success, even though it is just a partial success by association of who they (think they) know.  The father sums this up in ‘An Education’ when he says to his daughter Jenny, “Being a famous author is not as good as knowing a famous author.  It shows you’ve got influence, that you have connections.” 

Whilst I would not put ‘Six degrees of separation’ anywhere near a list of films that empowered the notion of black representation as it reinforces a negative stereotype, (white folk become victims of a black male perpetrator), it also asks the audience to consider the responsibility of the white ‘victims’ and their patronising cynical liberalism.

In the same way, whilst ‘An Education’ will never be used as an example of positive Jewish representation (English Christians become victims of a Jewish man’s manipulation), the film similarly also asks the audience to consider the responsibility of the ‘victims’ and their hypocritical behaviour (and their exploitation of their own daughter), and the characters (Jenny and her family) do eventually admit that and ask it of themselves.

It is not up to me to say whether ‘An Education‘ is antisemitic or not, but I would say it is more complex than the one-dimensional judgment that the accusation implies.  This is the same conclusion I draw from ‘Six degrees of separation‘.  When watching that play/film, at the back of my mind I am always thinking, “this is just saying that white people should not trust black people“, and I wonder how much other audiences take notice of the narrative complexity at work.  Of course I need to give the audiences some credit of intelligence, but when one’s cultural reputation is at stake, admittedly that is much easier said than done.


One thought on “An exercise in the lines of cultural sensitivity (on ‘An Education’ and ‘Six degrees of Separation’)

  1. Pingback: 3rd Cinema Screening Room #2: Average Journey For An Average Refugee « Beyond Project: notes on media/education/society __ shawn sobers

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