The 2001 film “Focus” attempts to demonstrate several aspects of discrimination based on attitudes in one New York neighborhood during World War II. Critics of the movie say that the nationalism brought on by the war should have lessened the discrimination in that time period. They say that the circumstances are therefore unbelievable. However, anyone familiar with history or who has seen Clint Eastwood’s film “Flags of our Fathers” knows that then, like now, the nationalism of war time was not universal.
In fact, the period of World War II represents one of the most discriminatory times of American history. This movie, based on a play by Arthur Miller, is intent on showing that discrimination based on visual cues is often misplaced. Furthermore, the subtle subtext of the movie is that blatant discrimination, such as what Lawrence Newman and his wife Gertrude face in the movie, is not always the greatest form of discrimination. Sometimes, the movie seems to say, it is subtle discrimination that causes the most long-term damage.
The movie stars William H. Macy as a personnel director for a small firm who finds himself in need of glasses and selected a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. From then on, neighbors, co-workers and even his mother comment that the glasses make him look Jewish. Macy’s character, Lawrence Newman, is then called on the carpet for hiring a Jewish woman for the secretary pool and subsequently refuses to hire another woman who might possibly be Jewish. He is soon demoted from a position he held for 20 years because of his new Jewish look and resigns in protest. Eventually he is pressured by neighbors to attend an anti-Semitic organization’s meeting and does so, believing that if he does not, people may develop a deeper belief that he and his new wife are Jewish.
The most obvious message of the movie is very clear in the actions of the villain played by Meatloaf Aday. Aday’s character Fred and several others in the neighborhood openly spout anti-Semitic rhetoric and belong to an openly racist organization. The movie plays up their discrimination based on visual cues and last names. Fred and others mistakenly believe that Lawrence and Gertrude are Jewish simply based on Lawrence’s eyewear and Gertrude’s maiden name, Hart. Neither is Jewish. Fred and his fellow believers bully other “Christians” into anti-Semitic behavior simply as a way of proving they are not part of the discriminatory class. And, while the movie is clearly preaching a message regarding the irony of misplaced discrimination, it saves its larger indictment for the closet discrimination practiced by Newman and others.
Newman clearly would not regard himself as racist, yet after being chastised for hiring a Jewish typist, he refuses to hire Gertrude. Gertrude, whom he has just met, has the last name Hart, a name some believe to be of Jewish origin. Newman later succumbs to the pressure of his neighbors to attend the anti-Semitic rally and tries to appear more Christian. While he does eventually resign from his job in protest over their anti-Jewish practices, he does so after he is demoted, not when he is chastised for hiring a Jewish woman and not until after he rejects another applicant because she might be Jewish. This subtext of the movie is more subtle, but is made clear when a Jewish storeowner asks Newman, “What do you see when you look at me?” The message is clear: this subtle racism does as much damage as Fred’s blatant and verbal racism.
The movie clearly is trying to force the viewer to see that both the blatant and the subtle racism were typical of the country at the time. Some reviewers of the movie argued that the racism would not have been so obvious during World War II when the country was at war partially to save the Jews who had been interned at the Nazi concentration camps, but that shows an ignorance of American history. During that time frame, racism in the United States was state-sponsored. African-Americans, especially in the South, were still subject to Jim Crow laws and institutionalized racism. Blacks and whites still had separate schools and in the midst of the war, the United States had rounded up people of Asian descent living in Southern California and sent them to American concentration camps. Though these were not the death camps of the Nazis, these people were denied their property and freedom based almost exclusively on the visual cues of their heritage. The country did not differentiate well between Asian nationalities either, even though the camps were specifically intended for those of Japanese descent.
What the movie tries to tell the viewer is that discrimination, whether as blatant as Fred or as subtle as Newman’s desire not to be mistaken for the wrong type of people, should have no place in American society. The movie is both heavy-handed and subtle in its message, trying to get people to observe that racism does not always mean name-calling, boycotts and violence. It can be as simple as labeling someone based on a perception instead of the reality of who that person is. “Focus” is an attempt to teach the lessons of equality with a look at history. The only problem then is that too many people disregard history or simply don’t know it well enough to learn anything.