Oy, Yo Mama
Blaxploitation movies are both saluted and bitten in The Hebrew Hammer, a satire that applies the conventions of '70s black stud detective movies like Shaft, Hammer, Slaughter, Truck Turner to contemporary Jewish American culture. It begins with a flashback to the title character's childhood in which little Mordecai is teased by his non-Jewish schoolmates because the spinning-top dreidel he got as a Hanukkah present doesn't match up with their own, plentiful Christmas gifts. As an adult, Mordecai Jefferson Carver (played by Adam Goldberg) becomes a hipster, righteous defender of bullied Jewish kids while also making a career as a private eye. (He's called "a certified circumcised dick" to a tune that resembles Isaac Hayes' "Theme from Shaft.")
Jonathan Hesselman wrote and directed The Hebrew Hammer with a fan's knowledge of the Blaxploitation genre and with a frank and sometimes-funny tone of commiseration. Many of the film's jokes convey Hesselman's awareness of the need for aggression and revenge -- the need for heroes -- that made Blaxploitation movies such a draw for urban youth. What makes the film noteworthy is that Hesselman's comic perspective on ethnic identity spreads the need for role models and saviors across American's ethnic rainbow.
The analogy made here between black movie fantasy and white Jewish movie fantasy is sometimes awkward. Underneath Hesselman's jokes lay the social complexities of pop culture. A heady confusion is felt while watching Mordecai drive a pimpmobile Caddy, or strut around in a black suit and a rabbinical black fedora. It recalls Rick Rubin's 1987 Tougher Than Leather (the first Hip Hop dramedy) which revealed that Run-DMC had good-naturedly appropriated that fedora for the group's own stylish iconography: Run-DMC's black New Yorkers' attitude combined with Rubin's own Jewish New Yorker's effrontery. Hesselman's addition to this history is to stick a big, flouncing, pimptastic feather in the hat's band. Call it Mack-aroni cuz this cultural mish-mash is as all-American as Yankee Doodle. Both Tougher Than Leather and Rusty Cundieff's Fear of a Black Hat are better films than The Hebrew Hammer because they actually examined and exposed some of the political economy behind black pop culture. Hesselman, working in the Tarantino era, settles for facile identification with the imagery and routines of black pop without inquiring how they're made or sold. He's shy of showing actual black and Jewish professional/cultural alliance such as distinguished James Toback's provocative Black and White (especially the recording studio sequences where the white studio owner will only deal with black rappers when their Jewish lawyer intervenes).
The Hebrew Hammer offers a milder provocation, centered on an interesting, historical- minded joke: When Mordecai is enlisted to fight the racist son of Santa Claus, he runs into the writer-director-producer-star of Sweet Sweetback's Baad Assss Song, Melvin Van Peebles. The man who started Blaxploitation by giving it its political backbone, greets Mordecai by saying "Goddam brother, you kickin' ass!" Mordecai returns the compliment, "Just taking a page out of Sweetback's book." Then Van Peebles himself paraphrases the blues-theme from Sweetback, "Mmmm Hmmm/ They bled yo mama/ They bled yo papa/ But they won't bleed you!"
Van Peebles' genius insight that movies can be an ideological weapon against bigotry is part of the lesson that whites and Jews take from the advances of black pop culture. Hesselman knows that imitating black style isn't simply about being cool (which finally puts him ahead of Tarantino). That's why The Hebrew Hammer subtly strikes a blow for the feelings of frustration and resentment that Jews have about living in a majority Christian society. These are the movie's lamest jokes (skits about school boy Mordecai and about Santa's evil son Damian -- played by comedian Andy Dick -- are more contrived than credible). It is Adam Goldberg's performance -- his chutzpah -- that gives Hesselman's satire the extra conviction it needs to move past these weak points.
Goldberg played the Jewish GI in Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan who has the agonizing and fatal mano a mano battle with the Nazi soldier. It's inevitable that Goldberg carry such a powerful and unforgettable cinematic moment with him. As a result, he isn't simply caricaturing Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Richard Roundtree; he's channeling their intrepidness and aggression, their kick-ass virility. Mordecai is frequented referred to as a "Semitic superstud." Here, Goldberg's a Jewish hero with a cause. "The fate of Hanukkah rests squarely on your shoulders" Mordecai is told when a Jewish organization leader (Peter Coyote in a fervent comic turn wearing a Moshe Dayan eye-patch) requests his aid. The obligation -- and guilt -- show Hesselman's sense of humor about ethnic identity. The Hebrew Hammer never turns self-pitying or self-righteous like Henry Bean's Jewish skinhead drama The Believer.
Satire relieves the cultural anxieties that effect all ethnic groups, though perhaps especially blacks and Jews, whose popular art attempts to define -- or to redefine -- their roles in American society. Just as Blaxploitation resulted in a new caliber of stereotypes, The Hebrew Hammer puts a new light on Jewish stereotypes. The council of Jewish leaders Mordecai answers to tease ethnicity with the kind of fondness Woody Allen has lost. Nora Dunn, as Mordecai's matchmaking mother, puts a fresh spin on what '50s Jewish comedians called Momism and a routine where Mordecai and his girlfriend pose as Wasps flips the script on the classic Mel Brooks Madeline Kahn old-folks-at-the-airport routine in High Anxiety. Hesselman uses movie models to confront Jewish (and black) psychological conflicts. The Hebrew Hammer is a raucous version of the same self-acceptance gesture Paul Mazursky made when one of his '70s heroes embraced the same Jewish conflicts by affectionately realizing "I'm crazy." When Mordecai enters an Underground Jewish Railroad, it turns out to be an amusement park ride featuring an announcer who sounds like the Moviefone voice. (Cultural bonus: the creator of Moviefone, Andrew Janecki, directed Capturing the Friedmans, a documentary structured around unresolved, real-life Jewish anxieties such as those Hesselman lampoons.)
Black and Jewish relations are also dealt with when Mordecai calls on the Kwaanza Liberation Front to help him save all ethnic holidays. Mario Van Peebles plays the leader of the KLF and Tony Cox plays Jamal, his dwarf lieutenant whose equates blackness with a good time. ("I'm all about Kwaanza, nigga!" he says eyeballing two bootylicious sisters.) The KLF scenes feature Sly Stone's "Don't Call Me Whitey" on the soundtrack. Mixed with Curtis Mayfield and Isely Brothers tracks, it attests more of Hesselman's cultural brotherhood.
Unfortunately, The Hebrew Hammer forgets that holidays are intrinsically ethnic -- especially Christmas. For Hesselman to ignore that results in the very tribalism that keeps people apart.
Armond White is film critic for the New York Press. White was staff writer for The Nation for 12 years (1984-1996) and is the author of two books on pop culture.