Growing up Jewish in New England during the 2000s, your life is punctuated at regular intervals by these little surprises. There’s the first time you learn what the Holocaust was, and you ask your mom why they hated Jews so much, and she doesn’t have an answer. There are uncomfortable afternoons you spend at your friend’s youth group, which he didn’t tell you was a Christian youth group beforehand. Maybe you get to school one day in December and there’s a little manger on your desk, and a patronizing card about “faith” from your classmate’s mom. One year, your friend texts you and asks if you’d be comfortable with him dressing up as a rabbi for Halloween. You say no. He does it anyway. And when you get your first job, you notice that your employers don’t seem to trust you to handle the money at the end of the day.
But despite all of this, you grow up thinking that anti-Semitism has no impact on your life. They’re not putting you in camps anymore, after all. These little moments are irritating and shitty, but they’re just little moments. You could hardly call yourself oppressed or discriminated against. So when your mom tells you that the movie everyone’s talking about is anti-Semitic, you’re sure she must be exaggerating. They couldn’t make a movie like that in the 21st century. Besides, she hasn’t even seen it. That couldn’t possibly be the director’s intent.
Here’s what your life was like if you were Mel Gibson in the 2000s. In 2004, Gibson released The Passion of the Christ, a film whose plot could charitably be interpreted as “a bunch of evil Jews get Jesus killed.” Gibson was arrested for drunk driving two years later, and never one to abandon his principles, he said to one of the Jewish arresting officers, “Fucking Jews . . . the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world. Are you a Jew?” This was embarrassing enough to send Gibson deep underground, but he resurfaced in 2010 after the release of a recording of him telling his ex-wife (among other things) that, “ . . . if you get raped by a pack of niggers, it will be your fault.” He planned a comeback in 2011 with a film about the Maccabee revolt, also known as the story of Chanukah. He commissioned Joe Eszterhas to write the screenplay, but Eszterhas bailed, publicly citing Gibson’s virulent and violent anti-Semitism.
Anyway, forget all that, because Mel’s back, baby! Hacksaw Ridge, his first film in a decade, is nominated for six Oscars, including one for his direction. It seems he’s fully redeemed himself from the scandals that hounded him throughout the past decade. And all he had to do was absolutely nothing.
How did this happen? It’s clear Gibson didn’t put in any work himself, but plenty of his fellow stars were willing to pick up the slack. In 2011, Robert Downey Jr. said that Gibson should be allowed the same chance at redemption that he was given, and reiterated his request at an awards show in 2014. Gary Oldman defended Gibson the same year, saying in an interview, “Mel Gibson is in a town that’s run by Jews and he said the wrong thing because he’s actually bitten the hand that I guess has fed him.” Jodie Foster gave Gibson his first major shot at a comeback in her film The Beaver, and she went to bat for him over and over again in the run-up to the film’s release.
None of those people are Jewish, in case you were wondering. And man oh man did they want their boy back.
They weren’t the only ones. Google “Mel Gibson comeback” and you’ll find a ton of stories leading up to the release of Hacksaw Ridge from the film press. People could barely conceal their excitement for Gibson’s imminent return. Finally, enough time had passed that they could pretend none of his monstrous behavior had ever happened. Or maybe it wasn’t so bad after all. He said some nasty things, sure, but no one got hurt! (((The media))) was so unfair, they practically crucified him! And he’s had so much trouble getting work ever since. We all know whose fault that is, right? *wink*
It’s things like this that make it hard to buy the idea that Hollywood is some liberal enclave. When ostensibly progressive people are not just willing but eager to see someone like Gibson absolved, it’s hard to trust that they really care about marginalized and vulnerable people. We should all be skeptical that the rich and powerful care about those people regardless. This sure doesn’t help their case.
With Hacksaw Ridge’s multiple Oscar nominations, it seems like they pulled off their whitewashing of Gibson. If only the rest of the world wasn’t so ready to buy into it. The film got really good reviews, many of them interpreting its story of a dedicated pacifist in wartime as Gibson’s way of signaling a personality change. I honestly think some of these critics want Gibson to have gotten over his vile bigotries more than Gibson himself does. Other positive reviews don’t mention Gibson’s history at all. At least they’re being honest about not caring.
Normally, this would be the part where I say something like, “I’m not telling anyone they can’t like Gibson’s films, but . . . ” I’m finding it hard to come up with a reason to believe that. He’s done nothing to deserve a comeback, besides disappearing for long enough to give people plausible deniability on forgetting what he did.
It’s especially disturbing given a certain recent pattern. On the small-scale, the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders brought out a lot of nasty, veiled Antisemitism from supposedly liberal commentators. No one ever called them on it. For some reason, parroting Jewish stereotypes to attack a Jewish presidential candidate never set off any progressive purity alarms. It’s like hatred of Jews is an acceptable bigotry on the left. In much more concerning news, there’s been an alarming rise in threats and attacks on Jewish synagogues, cemeteries, and community centers since the election. Not to mention the matter of the fascist Jew-hater currently wielding massive influence in the White House. The alt-right’s screeching ascent into mass media channels brought their twisted rationalization of anti-Semitism into the mainstream.
I want to believe that people nowadays are savvy enough to see through this sort of thing. I really, really want to believe that. But it’s hard not to read Gibson’s resurgence (and the lack of resistance to it) as part of the larger trend. Now the news is that Gibson might direct Suicide Squad 2. Maybe Jared Leto will make him eat a cupcake with rat poison in it or something. At this point, it’s the best I can hope for.
Featured Image: Summit Entertainment