Opinions & Commentary

Jake, Elwood, Charlottesville and the lesson of ‘The Blues Brothers’

By Daniel Osborn, Ed.D.

Daniel Osborn, Ed.D. a history instructor at Dean College in Franklin, is the author of the forthcoming, “Representing the Middle East and Africa in Social Studies Education: Teacher Discourse and Otherness.” Daniel Osborn, Ed.D. a history instructor at Dean College in Franklin, is the author of the forthcoming, “Representing the Middle East and Africa in Social Studies Education: Teacher Discourse and Otherness.” I have been thinking a lot lately about my favorite film, “The Blues Brothers.” I always watch it with my father, and we laugh uncontrollably. It is our bonding ritual. When I reflect on the countless evenings spent watching it, I feel nostalgic for the lightheartedness of these screenings. However, the events of Charlottesville and its aftermath have brought the film to mind in unexpected ways.

There is a scene where the Blues Brothers are stuck in traffic. They wave over a police officer, who informs them that the delay is because of a rally up ahead. The Illinois neo- Nazis won their court case and are marching. The brothers, declaring their hatred for neo-Nazis, proceed to run them off the road, forcing the marchers to dive off a bridge. The scene ends with the cadre of neo- Nazis, in uniforms replete with swastika armbands, treading water and looking wet, weak and foolish.

I never failed to laugh at this scene. It seemed ridiculously outlandish as a teenager. The premise of Nazis marching in the streets of the U.S. was the stuff of comedy and fiction. The feebleness of these neo- Nazis was the punch line. They were laughable and easily dismissed.

I watched this scene not only as a son bonding with his father but also as a Jew in suburban America. In spite of my knowledge of Jewish suffering, I felt safe, accepted and integrated. Persecution felt like the plight of Jews who lived elsewhere under different circumstances. As an adolescent, anti-Semitism seemed remote; something explained by grandparents when describing the family’s immigration story. My childhood household was interfaith. I always considered that a marker of progress and a sign of pluralism. I never felt vulnerable, targeted or insecure in my social standing.

It was not until later that I learned the scene from the 1980 film referenced the 1977 case of the National Socialist Party of America v. the Village of Skokie, where the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Nazis’ right to free speech and assembly. This case granted the party the right to march in Skokie, a town with over 40,000 Jewish residents and roughly 5,000 Holocaust survivors.

It has been 40 years since the National Socialist Party of America took the village of Skokie to court. Today, the sentiments of neo-Nazis appear to have resonance beyond the marginal segment of society that my beloved film depicted as inept. Rather than hilarious, I now find the representation in “The Blues Brothers’” of those who espouse Nazism and Nazi-related ideology concerning.

In the days since Charlottesville, I no longer see this scene as uproarious. I am troubled by the flippant portrayal of U.S. Nazis as a buffoonish fringe element, easily defeated. The film treats those who espouse this ideology as benign.

Rather than perceiving the contemporary amalgamation of neo- Nazis, white supremacists, KKK members and the “alt-right” as fodder for comedy, there is a social imperative to be attentive to their narratives, visions of the U.S., and assessments of people of color, women, Muslims, Jews and immigrants.

The idea of neo-Nazis taking to the streets no longer seems as improbable as it did when I first viewed “The Blues Brothers” as a teenager. Anti-Semitism no longer seems abstract and removed from my lived experience. Recent events have shown that a casual disregard for these ideas only creates space for them to circulate and entice others to hear this message, which jeopardizes the safety of populations who are marginalized, persecuted, and live with the trauma and legacy of victimhood.


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