Noah Berlatsky / April 14, 2021
The Angel Levine was greeted with irritation, befuddlement, and a good amount of indifference upon its release in 1970. Organized and produced by Harry Belafonte, the movie is an allegorical discussion of Black-Jewish relationships using a mix of realism and fantasy that managed to appeal to neither Black nor white audiences. A contemporary New York Times review labeled it “a failure of major proportions.” The Black press barely covered it, despite Belafonte’s fame and standing as one of the leading Black entertainers of the time. After the DVD release in 2002, a mostly sympathetic critic admitted, “the best that can be said about it is that it doesn’t quite come together.”
Watching the movie now, it’s clear the film is not exactly ahead of its time. Even post-Get Out (2017), with interest in Black speculative fiction on film at a historic high, it’s difficult to imagine The Angel Levine finding much of an audience. The fact that the movie continues to alienate seems significant, though. Truly egalitarian cross-ethnic solidarity remains difficult for creators and audiences to imagine.
The movie is based on a short story by Bernard Malamud, “The Angel Levine,” which was originally published in Commentary in 1958. Malamud was one of the postwar Jewish writers who took advantage of diminished antisemitism to celebrate his ethnic identity as a storytelling resource. His stories were often set in the Yiddish New York of the ‘20s and ‘30s, even as they dealt with contemporary themes. “The Angel Levine” is the story of Manischevitz, a Jewish tailor cursed with multiple catastrophes: his shop burns down, his insurance is insufficient, his back goes out, and his beloved wife Fanny becomes deathly ill. Burdened beyond endurance, he is startled one day by a Black man who appears unannounced in his apartment. The man says his name is Alexander Levine, and that he is an angel. Manischevitz doesn’t believe him, and the man leaves. But as Fanny grows worse, Manischevitz becomes desperate. He goes to Harlem, tracks Levine down, and finds him drinking and dancing in a very un-godly manner. Nonetheless, he tells the angel he believes in him. The angel returns to Manischevitz’s door, grows wings, and flies into the sky in a fluttering of black wings. Manischevitz enters his house and finds his wife has been cured.
Malamud’s story has Black people in it, but it’s told from a white Jewish perspective. Manischevitz is the main character, and the third person narrative is in his head; you see only what he sees, and he is the only character whose thoughts you know. The story is about the need to believe in others, and about welcoming Black people into the circle of Jewish ethical commitment. “Believe me, there are Jews everywhere,” Manischevitz says to Fanny in the story’s last line. But it is white Jewish people doing the welcoming. Levine merely waits to be summoned.
Belafonte was a singer who drew on a broad array of musical traditions, and who saw connections between working class struggle across racial, ethnic, and national boundaries. He was drawn to a story about mutual faith as a foundation for solidarity and transformation. But he didn’t want to follow Malamud in presenting that story entirely from a white perspective. Instead, he carefully assembled an interracial group of creators to work on the film. Slovakian Ján Kadár, who had been interred in a Nazi work camp, was brought on as director. Zero Mostel plays the lead, renamed Morris Mishkin, and Polish actress Ida Kamińska took the part of Fanny. But Belafonte also brought on writer Bill Gunn, who would later create the much-admired Ganja and Hess (1973). Gunn was specifically tasked with expanding the character of Alex Levine. There’s also a role for Levine’s girlfriend, Sally (Gloria Foster). Finally, Belafonte created an apprenticeship program so that young Black and Puerto Rican filmmakers, mostly excluded from the film industry, could get paid to work on set, contribute their talents, and gain experience for their own projects.
In short, Belafonte wanted Black experience to be at the center, rather than the periphery, of the filmed The Angel Levine. He accomplished this in part simply by appearing in the film himself. Belafonte is an enormously charismatic presence, who effortlessly steals scenes even from a character actor as accomplished as Mostel. It’s impossible to see Belafonte as a figure in someone else’s drama, or as a kind of comical enigma. His smile manages to be both beatific and lived-in; you want to know more about him, because you know he has his own story to tell.
The movie, contra Malamud, takes pains to tell that story. Levine, in this version, is a small town hood who is killed by a car while trying to escape with a stolen fur. When he got to heaven, he says he was told to turn around and come right back. (“Every white mother” went right on to heaven, he says bitterly, “but me they put on probation.”) He is tasked with getting Mishkin to believe in him. That belief will allow him to miraculously heal Fanny, and become a full angel in heaven. In the meantime, though, he has his own unfinished business. He wants to reconcile with his long-suffering girlfriend Sally, apologize, and tell her he loves her.
Giving Levine a narrative of his own creates a clash of genres. In accord with the Malamud story, Mishkin is still the main character in a white ethnic Jewish tale about endurance, suffering, and empathy, told in a sentimental register. But Levine’s story draws on the social realism of Black protest genres. His angry soliloquies (“Nothin’! Nothin’! A whole lifetime with nothin’ to show for it!”) and his quick rage at Mishkin’s casual racist slurs (“You call me a schvartze one more time and I’ll knock you on your ass!”) echo the inchoate, yearning despair and simmering righteous violence of Richard Wright’s 1940 Native Son.
The film uses its magical elements to try to bridge these contrasting narratives. Levine simply appears in Mishkin’s kitchen, through uncertain means, and the two must then elbow around each other in the cramped set, their bodies and stories squashed in together for better or worse. Mishkin bustles around and tries to make his wife comfortable while Levine in the next room embraces Sally in an effort to overcome her skepticism. Repeatedly, Mishkin looks through the window in the kitchen, or through a door jam, gazing at Levine just as the movie audience gazes at Levine. Those who came to see a white Jewish drama are encouraged to see, with Mishkin, another story. “Mr. Levine, you have meaning for me,” Mishkin says. That’s a demand not just for understanding, but for interest, investment, and a recognition of relevance across difference and across genre.
Being in one another’s stories should in theory provide a common ground for solidarity. The movie makes numerous efforts to show intersections of Black and Jewish experience, and to suggest that the story of one can be the story of the other. In an early scene, Mishkin applies for welfare to a Black woman caseworker—a reminder that, despite racist messaging to the contrary, it’s not only or primarily Black people who sometimes need state aid. Later, during Mishkin’s final trip to Harlem, he drops in to ask for directions in a Black tailor’s shop, looking for help from a member of his own profession.
The most obvious appeal across Black and Jewish communities, though, is the fact that Levine belongs to both. This is an approach that should resonate more solidly now than at the time of the film, more even than at the time of Malamud’s story. In 1955, Malamud could write that Manischevitz “had heard of black Jews but had never met one.” In the ‘70s, Black Jewish people still did not have much public visibility; James Baldwin doesn’t mention Black Jewish people at all in his famous 1967 essay “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White.” Some five decades later, however, intermarriage has substantially increased the number of Black Jewish people in the United States, and Ethiopian Jewish immigration to Israel has been a topic of international discussion. Levine in 2021 isn’t just a symbol, if he ever was only that. He’s a screen representation of people who are rarely portrayed in mainstream Hollywood films.
Mishkin’s attitude towards Levine in 1970 is one of incredulity; he demands that Levine recite the blessing over the bread and, in a hugely inappropriate move, asks if he’s circumcised. Again, Black Jewish people are significantly more prevalent now, but Mishkin’s racist notion that Jewishness is linked to skin color persists. Sandra Lawson, a Black rabbi, wrote at the Forward that she’d “never been in a Jewish space where I wasn’t questioned.” Black Jewish Texan Tracey Nicole says that she always introduces herself to a new police officer at her place of worship because “I am the only Jew of color at our synagogue. So when I walk into situations like that, I’m wondering if people will acknowledge that I belong.”
Malamud’s story, which is rooted in Jewish experience, imagines shared suffering and marginalization as a path to renewal and resurrection. And that’s not completely fantastic; many Jewish people did work prominently for Black civil rights in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and some even died for it. But Mishkin’s racism, and the way it is still echoed in white Jewish treatment of Black Jews, should make viewers hesitant about taking away a too hopeful message. Belafonte himself approached his film about faith with a good deal of skepticism only two years after the assassination of his friend Martin Luther King Jr. “For me, the miracle in America was Martin Luther King,” he said in a press interview about the film. “In the years that King and SNCC were coming to the people with love, the people didn’t believe. They finally believed when it was too damn late.”
The difficulty in crafting a white Jewish story and a Black story simultaneously is underlined in one of the film’s most telling exchanges. Levine, distraught, has gone to the roof. Mishkin follows him and tries to comfort him by referencing white Jewish experience of assimilation and waning antisemitism. “They’re not very nice to you now, but tomorrow they’ll be ashamed of themselves and do better,” he says with complacent assurance. To which Levine responds, “Bullshit.” Black people have been in America a good bit longer than white Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Time brought them not apologies, but the opportunity to be exploited by a broader ethnicity of white landlords. When Mishkin suggests he wants to draw Levine into the orbit of white Jewish ethics and experience, it’s meant to be beneficent altruism. But it could also be a self-serving lie. How can you create solidarity without flattening difference? How do you make another’s story your own when it isn’t yours to own?
Malamud’s “The Angel Levine” mostly ignored those questions, which is why it feels finished and coherent, if slight. The film version, in contrast, tries to answer them, and seizes up in the process. It obviously doesn’t know how to wrap up its runtime. As the New York Times review says, it keeps “stopping and starting up again.” It finally dead-ends in melancholy ambiguity, with Fanny hovering between life and death back at the apartment while Mishkin stands in Harlem, reaching up to try to catch a floating black feather that eludes his grasp. He fails, and the movie largely fails as well. Belafonte was trying to rework a Jewish idiom into a Black one to create a story about universal solidarity that retained particularity without condescension. More than half a century later, American cinema, to say nothing of American society, is still unsure how to do that. It’s not even sure it wants to try.
Noah Berlatsky is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics.