Reviving a Defunct Dialogue About Crown Heights

By Nacha Cattan

Published February 13, 2004, issue of February 13, 2004.
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Showtime’s made-for-television movie “Crown Heights” was shot mostly in Toronto — and it shows. But despite its tendency to make things neater and prettier than they actually were, the film manages to offer an honest lesson about the 1991 riots that shook Crown Heights, Brooklyn. “Crown Heights” is based on a true story about an all-male youth group formed by a few bold members of the local Lubavitch and black communities in the wake of the riots.

The riots of August 1991 were touched off when a young black boy, Gavin Cato, was struck and killed in Crown Heights by a chasidic driver. Later that night, a mob of black youths shouting “Get the Jew” fatally stabbed Yankel Rosenbaum, 29, an Australian doctoral student. The rioting continued for four days as gangs of black youths threw rocks and bottles, shouted antisemitic slogans and clashed with chasidim.

“Crown Heights” stars Howie Mandel of “St. Elsewhere” fame sporting a beard, a Yankees yarmulke and a chasidic rap-star swagger — and toting the Yiddish Forward in his car — and Mario Van Peebles in cascading dreadlocks. They play “Dr. Laz” and Paul Richards, respectively, characters based on the earnest youth leaders who pulled black and chasidic youths off the streets during the riots and later gathered them together to play basketball and paint peace murals.

The movie, scheduled to premiere on Showtime in prime time on February 16, centers on a friendship that forms between two teens in the group. Yudi (Jeremy Blackman), a yeshiva student with a clandestine fondness for hip-hop, is brought to the verge of violence after he witnesses black teenagers injuring his father during the riots. T.J. (Dequan Henderson) is a somber black adolescent who is too caught up in his troubled family life to join his street-rapping crew in a rampage along Kingston Avenue. The unlikely duo is brought together by Laz and Richards and by the teens’ shared appreciation for hip-hop artists like Heavy D. Their breakdance and rap routines become the headlining act of Project Cure, a program promoting dialogue between the two communities that tours city schools and senior centers and is booked to play at Madison Square Garden.

The movie does a thorough, if forced, job of laying out the grievances of both communities. It opens with a sequence of sound bites delivered by local politicos uttering the oft-cited complaints about anti-Jewish bigotry on one side and preferential treatment of Jews on the other. At Project Cure’s first meeting, a cluster of hotheaded chasidic teens in black hats and jackets sit opposite a group of snickering black boys in baggy pants and sneakers. When a black teen asks why yeshiva students wear all black, Yudi quips, “So we don’t shoot each other over sneakers like you.”

Although the characters are based on real people, they often appear to be one-dimensional vehicles for advancing the movie’s agenda of showing both the difficulties and ultimate benefits of interracial dialogue. A wealth of one-liners are delivered at rapid-fire pace for comic relief, and platitudes offer instruction on how to resolve conflict. In a turbulent moment, Richards tells Laz that “peace is a long-term investment, brother,” and after a well-balanced argument over which group is more persecuted, Laz tells Richards they must “agree to disagree.” During one of Project Cure’s basketball games, a yeshiva student accidentally knocks down his black opponent. There is a pregnant pause and the audience grows concerned. Then, in a show of the movie’s family-friendly orientation, the yeshiva student helps his opponent to his feet and the crowd goes wild.

But what makes the film more interesting than an after-school special is Yudi’s struggle with his identity when faced with the temptations of hip-hop culture. After much prodding, T.J. convinces Yudi to go to a nightclub with him. Yudi dances a few awkward steps with a girl and then backs off, mortified. The incident sparks a war of ethnic slurs between the two friends. Yudi complains that T.J. is making him “do stuff I don’t want to do.” T.J. tells Yudi to quit obsessing over someone else’s culture. “Guess what, buddy,” Yudi responds, “You don’t have any culture.” T.J. then calls him a “beanie-wearin’ bee-atch.”

It’s this tension that threatens their friendship and musical collaboration and that is probably the reason Project Cure did not receive meaningful support from the chasidic community in real life. Despite its central role in the film, and the blessing it received from the Lubavitcher rebbe, in reality Project Cure faced stiff opposition from some religious and communal leaders in Crown Heights (this writer’s home community) and reached little more than a few dozen chasidic teenagers. It all but dissolved a few years after it started.

The director and producer of “Crown Heights,” Jeremy Kagan, told the Forward some of the reactions that Project Cure evoked: “A lot of people said, ‘This is going to be a bad influence, period.’ Then there was a number of people who said, ‘It’s just window-dressing. Sure it looks good, but it’s not going to do anything.’ There’s a third group, certainly Laz represents it, saying, ‘These are our neighbors — we have to try to support each other.’”

The movie stands as a reminder of what could have been, if both communities as well as government agencies had fully backed the program. Project Cure may have focused on basketball and hip-hop, but that modest step might have been more meaningful than the posturing of local politicians who continue to brag about the number of telephone numbers from the black and Jewish communities they hold in their wallets. It was a grassroots attempt that provided an outlet for teens from both groups, many of whom needed the guidance of dynamic youth leaders beyond just the stated goal of promoting racial harmony. There are often murmurs of bringing the program back. Perhaps they should be heeded.

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