- Does Anyone Have the Right to Say, “I Don’t Care”?: Resistance and Reverence at Schindler’s List
On Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 1994, a group of sixty-nine mostly black and Latino high school students from Oakland’s Castlemont High were ejected from the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland after patrons complained to the management that they were talking and laughing during a matinee of Schindler’s List (Rich 17). The students, who ranged in age from fourteen to eighteen, had been brought there on a fieldtrip by Mark Rader, a science teacher who had hoped that exposure to the film would encourage them to think about racial injustice and discrimination (Spolar C1). Although the Jewish Community Relations Council had prepared a study guide in conjunction with the Holocaust Center of Northern California and sent it to the Oakland School District, it did not arrive in time for Rader to use, and according to his own account, he did little to prepare the students for what they were about to see outside of warning them to be on their best behavior (Levin 3). Some students later claimed that the majority of them didn’t know about the Holocaust and had completed no lessons on the subject at Castlemont (Blacks and Jews).
Matinee attendees that day remember the talking and laughter as going on continuously until the projector was turned off one hour into the film (Blacks and Jews). Students and their chaperons later claimed that the behavior that caused the most outrage, a comment and laughter after a Nazi shot a female Jewish architect in the head, involved only ten of the students at the most (Spolar C1). Among the group of offended theater patrons were Holocaust survivors, according to the theater manager (Rich 17). As the students were marched out of the theater, about half of the remaining 450 spectators burst into spontaneous applause (Mowatt A10). Both the students and the majority of the remaining audience may have thought they could put the incident behind them and continue with their field trip or the film, but someone tipped off the local Bay Area news media, and that applause became the opening shot in a salvo of accusations and recriminations that eventually became a national scandal, culminating nearly three months later in director Steven Spielberg’s appearance, along with California Governor Pete Wilson, at a Castlemont school assembly.
This paper examines how a conflict within an audience at a single movie screening became the subject of a national news scandal. The witness testimony I use as support should be read not as definitive accounts of the incident, but rather as symptomatic of the very discourses that generated and sustained the scandal. Since most of the interviews were made after significant attention had already been given the incident, it is impossible to determine to what extent the controversy reflected the rhetoric of the students and other audience members or vice versa. What is clear, though, is that very specific events and discourses in the contemporary historical context predisposed the media to portray the incident as an example of outrageously inappropriate and insensitive behavior by possible anti-Semitic black youth while ignoring questions of the appropriateness of the film for students that age, the educational value of the film in general, and, most crucially, the nature of ordinary youth, and particularly black youth, behavior in movie theaters. [End Page 53]
The Castlemont story appeared during a time of widespread reporting about a perceived crisis in relations between blacks and Jews. This rift had first come into the national consciousness during the 1991 series of riots that took place in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, a neighborhood largely inhabited by Hassidic Jews and Afro-Caribbeans.1 Concerns about relations between the two communities had been reactivated just a month and a half before the Castlemont incident when Khalid Abdul Muhammad, a former officer in the Nation of Islam, gave a speech at Kean College in New Jersey, during which he notoriously referred to Jews as the “bloodsuckers of the black community” (Martello 3). The Castlemont incident became the focus of national discourse about the state of black...