Jean-Luc Godard, the maker of over-praised films and the utterer of under-reported anti-Semitic statements, is set to receive an honorary Oscar. This has produced a bit of a kerfuffle, enough to catch the attention of The New York Times, which quotes the Academy vice president and governor Phil Alden Robinson, the writer of Field of Dreams, to defend the selection by, as The Times put it, arguing that “the art and the artist are separate.” Robinson said, “D.W. Griffith got an honorary Oscar in 1926 and the man was horribly racist.” Indeed he was.
But so was the rest of America at the time. Racial segregation was then both legal and ubiquitous, and casual racist utterances drew no attention at all, certainly not rebuke. One needs only to look at the pictures Hollywood made in that era to gauge the mood of the nation—everything from Charlie Chan’s ridiculous chauffeur, that racist caricature Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland), to the naïve film depiction of Margaret Mitchell’s historical atrocity, Gone with the Wind. Just listen to the original lyric of “Without a Song”: “A darkie’s born, but he’s no good no how, without a song.” The song was written in 1929, but it was recorded by a later-chagrined Frank Sinatra in the 1940s. Sinatra, no racist, later changed the lyric. It endures as a masterpiece.
I doubt that a whole lot of white people protested Griffith’s award. (Black people didn’t matter.) More to the point, Mr. Robinson, is whether Griffith would get the award today. His gifts as a filmmaker are no less apparent and, if anything, he has gotten increased recognition as the ur director—the man who showed everyone how it could be done. My guess is that Hollywood would not even consider such an award. After all, there is no way to give an award to a body of work. It has to go to a person, and the person in this case was a raw racist, an admirer of the Ku Klux Klan. I think there would be protests.
How is Godard different? He has called the producer Pierre Braunberger a “filthy Jew”, lauded the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics (“before every Olympics finale, an image of Palestine [refugee] camps should be broadcast”), and several times equated Zionism with Nazism—the product of a mind pitted with the syphilitic hate we call anti-Semitism. In his case, though, his Jew hatred is camouflaged as anti-Zionism, which is a respectable enough ideology but which is often the snowball that contains the solid rock of anti-Semitism. (Much of this material can be found on the Forward.com and Jewishjournal.com.)
Hollywood, though, is supposedly Jewland, this place of mansions and pools and shiksa goddesses where Jews are secure and powerful. Not only can they afford to ignore the quaint anti-Semitism of the talented, but some of them are becoming more and more uncomfortable with the antics of Israel—its occupation of the West Bank, the occasional incursion into Lebanon or Gaza, the role of the ridiculous and embarrassing ultra-religious, dressed like a blessedly forgotten grandparent. They not only get all confused about how to separate the artist from his ideas (My God! The blacklist again!), but they do not want to seem too favorable to Israel, what with its barbed wire and black hats. They are cautious. Such caution is called cowardice.
Just as no one in the film industry could look a black person in the eye after giving an award to Griffith, so it should be just as hard to honor Godard and look history in the eye. The victims of the Holocaust whom he has cruelly demeaned—“basically, there were six million kamikazes”—did not merely vanish. They were murdered, usually shot, by people who often said something like “filthy Jew” themselves.
I doubt that a whole lot of white people protested D.W. Griffith’s award in 1926. (Black people didn’t matter.) More to the point is whether Griffith would get the award today.
Given his utter disregard for the Academy and his notorious crankiness, it’s not likely that Godard will show up Nov. 13 to receive his award. If, though, he does, it’s appalling that anyone else would.
Richard Cohen is a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post and a contributor to The Daily Beast.