How one powerful song helped to heal ‘Crown Heights’
My father was a reform rabbi in Mount Vernon, New York, a city that, in the 1950s, had a railroad line splitting it in half. On one side lived mostly white people including the Jews; on the other side were peoples of various minorities including African-American.
In 2004, I was hired to make a movie about the riots in Crown Heights that happened in 1991. I traveled to Brooklyn to begin my research and as I walked Eastern Parkway, the major thorough are in Crown Heights, I found a similar situation: on one side of the street were the Lubavitch Hasidic Jews centered around 770, the home of the last Lubavitch Rebbe. On the other side of the street lived African-American many of them Caribbean. Crossing back-and-forth felt like crossing over a border between two different countries. I’d been here before doing research about the Hasidic community itself for a film I also wrote and directed based on Chaim Potok’s famous novel “The Chosen.” But this time I was meeting a variety of people on both sides of the street, people who had been there during those three hot summer days of violence.
I talked with youth and elders and leaders of both communities including rabbis and pastors. And the differing ways that people responded to the same questions revealed their suspicions and judgments of each other. One African-American pastor said he believed the Jews got better treatment by the city then did his community. Many Hasids said they believed that their Black neighbors were more inclined to violence. Though both of these conclusions can be challenged, one truth is that both communities struggle with poverty issues. And some locals held the perspective that neither was getting preferential treatment, and they were open to learn about and live with each other.
I found these interviews so powerful in revealing cultural conflicts and solutions that I made a separate documentary as well as the narrative feature. Both were shown on Showtime.
The Showtime executive at the time was Jerry Offsay, and wisely, he chose an African-American woman Toni Ann Johnson to write the script. And here I was, the American Jew who would produce and direct it. The story we decided to tell was based on the work of two men in both communities who were dealing with young people. Dr. (David) Laz, a dynamic rabbi, composer, and musician was a Lubavitch youth leader; we cast Howie Mandel in the role. African-American youth leader Richard Green was portrayed by Mario Van Peebles.
After these three days of horror, Laz and Richard met each other to figure out ways to connect kids from both sides of the street so that they could personally find out about each other, and potentially work and play together. The “play together” was the most successful, and this varied from sports like basketball to the creation of a musical multi-ethnic group that became popular within the communities representing both sides, singing and hip-hop dancing for peace and tolerance. There are a number of albums like “Increase the Peace” that are a collection of the songs of “Dr. Laz and the Cure.”
Before we went into production, I spent time with the two boys, Yudi and TJ, who were members of that band that we based our story on. It was 13 years since the riot, and, of course, they had changed and now were living in different cities. But intermittently they had stayed in touch and every now and then would regroup with Laz to perform. I also kept hearing that despite these efforts, many of the superstitions and fears of both groups were still prevalent. As one rabbi put it, we are here to fix the past not be fixated on the past.
I knew that the theme of this movie was to show how divergent communities can get together, how they did so even after a violent confrontation. But then the question remained, could this movie suggest ways to continue these connections? We live in a world where instead of recognizing each other as brothers, we look at each other as others. How do we get past the prejudices and see that our very differences often make for fascinating and productive friendships? In the end, or maybe even in the beginning, we all want the same things. As Lubavitch Rebbe Schneerson said, we need to look for what unites us, as there is so much more we have in common. One way to unite people is music. We can listen and be moved by each other’s sounds, and we can play together.
As I was making the movie, I struggled with how to end it. Even though the coming together of the young people was initially successful, as time moved on, so did they. The band that the boys were part of began to dissolve after its first year, and the boys separated back into their own neighborhoods. I wanted to emphasize that there are continuing possibilities of the connections. But how to do this in the movie? Talking to my girlfriend, a good storyteller, we came up with the idea of a road, something that sometimes separates people, and that became a subway station, and in the film, the boys unexpectedly find each other on opposite sides of the tracks. At first there is little acknowledgment, but then one of them does one of their dance moves, just so slightly and across the tracks, the other one picks it up and the two of them, to the amazement of the subway riders, start to dance together across the divide. It was a powerful and visually effective end.
Before we started to shoot, I had an idea about a musical ending — something that would blend the sound of the African American world with the sounds of Jewish culture. My music supervisor friend Joel Sill introduced me to a new composer Aaron Zigman, and I spoke to him about this idea, and Aaron wrote a piece of music, recorded it and brought it to me. I started to listen, and by the end I was weeping. He had created a gospel sounding song performed by an African-American chorus and blended it with the chanting of “Sim Shalom” and the Shema by the famous Los Angeles cantor Chayim Frenkel.
“You have made it very difficult for me,” I told Aaron. “You have created the essence of this movie bringing these sounds together and this song is so good that I am going to be challenged to make a movie that will deserve it.” In fact, that song won the Emmy award the following year. Here is a link to that last scene and the music and the possibility. As the song says, “Grant us universal peace and a world of understanding.”
CROWN HEIGHTS – end music.mp4 from Jeremy Kagan on Vimeo.
Professor Jeremy Kagan is an internationally recognized award winning director/writer/producer of feature films and television and a well-known teacher. He has made many movies about Jewish subjects.
‘Crown Heights’ is available from Amazon Prime.