Did you see Jackie Robinson hit that ball? It went zooming cross the left field wall. Yeah boy, yes, yes. Jackie hit that ball. And when he swung his bat, the crowd went wild, Because he knocked that ball a solid mile. Yeah boy, yes, yes. Jackie hit that ball.
This 1940s jazz hit by Count Basie and his Orchestra opens the 2001 movie “Snow in August” which is set in Brooklyn during the summer of 1947. It’s a very appropriate piece of music with which to start the film because Jackie Robinson, the first African-American major-league baseball player, and the subject of the recent movie “42”, becomes an important symbol of minorities striving for the American Dream against discrimination. For most of the characters in “Snow in August,” Jackie Robinson is a hero, but a few consider him a villain trying to push his way in where he doesn’t belong. But racism is only in the background in this film; the more prominent issue is anti-Semitism and, to a smaller extent, anti-Catholicism.
Based on a book by Pete Hamill, the film begins quite similar to many other nostalgic coming-of-age movies set in Brooklyn in the 1930s and 1940s like “The Chosen,” “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” and “Radio Days,” to name just a few. But the further the film goes, the more the tension builds and the more the violence escalates; it ends up going in a very different direction.
The main character is Michael Devlin (Peter Anthony Tambakis), an Irish-Catholic boy, about 10-years-old. His father has been killed in World War II, so he lives alone with his mother (Lolita Davidovich) in a lower-class neighborhood. He’s an altar boy, loves Captain Marvel, and enjoys hanging out with his two best friends (Jonathan Koensgen and Jase Blankfort).
His childhood is relatively happy until one day, when in the corner candy store, he witnesses the local bully (Adam MacDonald) beat the Jewish proprietor nearly to death for being a Jew. Partly driven by the “never, ever snitch” code and partly by fear of reprisals from the bully, Michael is afraid to say anything to the cops. Yet as the detectives continually pursue him he becomes more and more isolated from his own community.
When a local rabbi (Stephen Rea), a refugee from the Holocaust, asks Michael to be his Shabbos Goy, the two strike up an unlikely friendship. Well, maybe not so unlikely, given Michael’s need for a father-figure in his life. Michael helps teach the rabbi the English language while the rabbi teaches Michael Yiddish. As they get to know each other better, the two discuss baseball, the local and national hero Jackie Robinson, and stories of Jewish folklore, particularly the famous story of the Golem.
When Michael finally confesses to the rabbi what he saw in the candy store and his fear of speaking up, the rabbi sympathizes. He understands fear.
When the bully and his gang of thugs returns, the violence against Michael, his mother, and the rabbi becomes more and more life-threatening. With seemingly nowhere else to turn, Michael feels his only hope lies with the Golem.
Although the ultimate resolution of the film rubbed me the wrong way, I enjoyed the first three-quarters of it. It was an emotional movie and the acting was very good. I was especially impressed by Stephen Rea who really does make a believable Eastern-European rabbi who is now a stranger in a strange land. A number of scenes were quite touching, particularly one where Michael’s mother dances with him and reminiscences about his father. The most moving scene of all is when the rabbi visits Michael and his mother and tells them about his wife, to whom he was married so tragically briefly.
The film’s ending is as unlikely as snow in August, and it’s certainly not the conclusion I would have given it if I were writing the story. Michael’s solutions to his problems are very different from the way his hero, Jackie Robinson, fought prejudice. “42,” in my view, is a superior film and depicts a better way to solve problems.
But some people might like the ending of “Snow in August;” if you don’t mind fantasy, it will give you a reason to stand up and cheer.