Kenneth Feinberg (left) and Michael Keaton as Kenneth Feinberg (right). Photos by Alex Wong and Netflix. Jewface casting
Kenneth Feinberg (left) and Michael Keaton as Kenneth Feinberg (right). Photos by Alex Wong and Netflix.


There was a massive fuss this autumn when a major Hollywood movie came out. A white actor played Martin Luther King in blackface.

No, of course he didn’t. It would never happen.

Blackface casting no longer happens.

Just as Russell T Davies argued for casting gay actors as gay characters in his TV drama It’s a Sin.

And earlier this year, UK theatres signed a pledge to cast only trans actors in trans roles.

Yet, I just watched a tremendously good movie Worth which could well earn an Oscar for Michael Keaton as Kenneth Feinberg – the lawyer behind the compensation fund for victims of 9/11. That’s WASP Keaton playing Jewish Feinberg.

And so far Rabbi Google can tell me, not a single murmur.

Don’t get me wrong. Keaton is great in the role of the number-crunching lawyer who discovers his humanity. The movie itself is one of the best I’ve seen this year. Probably the best that’s ever dealt with 9/11. Unsentimental, for the most part, yet deeply moving.

It deserves the awards it will doubtless win.

And yet, and yet… Why the Jewface casting, when we would never tolerate blackface?

Does Jewface casting matter?

Does it matter? I am myself split on the matter.

On the one hand, you could drive yourself mad, trying (say) to cast an accountant from Barking as an accountant from Barking.

On the other hand, the real Feinberg doesn’t merely look Jewish – which Keaton doesn’t in a month of Saturdays. He actively was Jewish.

Faced with the almost impossible task of deciding how to divide up compensation for the bereaved, Feinberg is quoted by the Heritage Florida Jewish News saying he took refuge in Jewish texts.

None of this was in the movie. Indeed, aside from his name, the (Jewish) screenwriter Max Borenstein included one single reference. When a character angrily announced that his fate relied on “some Jew lawyer.”

So the only overt Jewishness turns out to be negative.

Recent years

It’s hardly the first time this has happened.

Comedian Sarah Silverman recently listed the many films and TV shows from recent years which featured non-Jewish actresses in Jewish parts. They included The Marvellous Mrs Maisel with Rachel Brosnahan as a Jewish comedian.

And the 2017 film Disobedience with Rachel McAdams as Esti Kuperman, an ultra-orthodox Jewish woman who renews her same-sex relationship with her childhood best friend.

She also cited the 2018 courtroom drama On The Basis Of Sex. This starred Felicity Jones as the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

By coincidence, last night I watched the latest episode of the American legal drama The Good Fight (highly recommended).

This episode featured the ghost of that same Ruth Bader Ginsburg, played spot-on by the (Jewish) Elaine May.

If they can do it, why not other shows?

Again – does it really matter?

Well, first, we don’t want impersonations. But I find it difficult to believe in characters who simply don’t look the part. There are many different ways of being Jewish.

We don’t all look like Fagin, for sure. But an actor has to be believable. Clearly, the producers felt Keaton was believable, but not to a Jewish viewer like me.

Nowadays, novels and screenplays often receive a “diversity” reading, to ensure they accurately present black and other ethnic groups. Maybe that should apply to casting and acting too.

Second, as black and other minority groups have found, it’s important to see your own people on screen, in roles you can recognise.

Third, this isn’t to say that these non-Jewish actors put in bad performances. Or, as someone said to me, that there are any major Jewish stars who could have done better.

But of course, people said that of black actors in the past. While the actors said, if they were never cast, they’d never be able to develop their skills in the first place.

Fourth, at a time when antisemitism is on the rise again, it’s important to show that Jews aren’t either religious bigots or “Jew lawyers”. Jews are as wide-ranging as any human group. Except on screen.

Christmas thoughts

As we get ready to celebrate the birthday of the most famous and influential Jew ever to have lived, maybe this is food for thought.

To add to the Christmas turkey and pudding.

Read more

Kenneth Feinberg helps 9/11 families find ‘Worth’ in Obama-produced Netflix movie

Enough, already! Is it time to stop the ‘Jewface’ casting?

With antisemitism on the rise, it is crucial that Jewish people are meaningfully included in telling Jewish stories

David Baddiel and the J word