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Sandy Banks

Brendan Fraser's Real-Life Role Means Something to Teens

May 16, 2000|Sandy Banks

To be honest, I went mainly to catch a glimpse of Brendan Fraser, the hunky star who made "George of the Jungle" one of the few kids movies I actually enjoyed.

I guess I was hoping he'd be all buffed up, in the loincloth attire that made watching the movie as much fun for moms as it was for kids.

Instead, the young actor turned up at last week's movie screening in jeans and a T-shirt . . . looking very much like the teenagers he'd come to meet.

But if his outfit disappointed me, his message didn't.

Fraser hosted a history class from Hamilton High in the plush Beverly Hills screening room of Creative Artists Agency to view and discuss his 1992 movie "School Ties."

The movie, set in 1952, is about a Jewish kid from a blue-collar neighborhood who gets recruited for his football prowess by an elite New England boarding school.

He's advised by the headmaster to keep silent about his Jewish heritage, lest he upset his classmates and 100 years of school tradition. So he hides his Star of David necklace and sets out to find his way among these kids from society's upper-crust.

And for a while, he succeeds--becomes a football star, popular, smart--until he takes up with the girlfriend of a teammate, who then inadvertently learns he is Jewish and spreads the news among their friends.

The movie was only moderately successful at its initial release. But it has taken on a new life in circulation among area high schools, where it is used in ethics, history and human development classes to foster discussion of sensitive issues such as prejudice and diversity.

Fraser plays the hero in the film with dignity and emotion, anger layered upon hurt as his facade dissolves and his former friends turn on him--openly taunting him with vile stereotypes, hanging a hand-painted swastika above his bed, trying to pin a cheating scandal on him to save their own necks.

But the film's lessons extend beyond its simple story line of anti-Semitism among the blueblood elite.

"It's good as a teaching tool, because you can generalize it to all kind of differences," says Louise Macatee, director of counseling at Campbell Hall private school in North Hollywood, which uses the film in its human development classes.

"What the film does is point out how we make assumptions [about people] based on the group they belong to," she says. "When I ask my students if they're [prejudiced], they say no. I ask if they've ever encountered prejudice and most of them say no.

"But then you start talking about all the ways we stereotype people--whether it's because they're black or Mexican or Jewish . . . or teenagers--and they see that this does apply to them. That stereotypes can hold everybody back."

*

There is no blueblood crowd at Hamilton High, and the 30 10th-graders at last week's "School Ties" screening seemed to struggle a bit with the notion that religion could be such a divisive force.

Until Fraser stood up and, as the kids say, made it real:

"How many of you have ever tried to fit in?" he asked. He was met with silence at first, then a few hands tentatively inched up.

"How many of you have ever had to give up some part of yourself, hide something to try to fit in?" They glanced around at each other--an auditorium full of black and brown kids . . . and one lone Jewish youth, wearing a yarmulke, slouched deep in his seat.

It is not, Fraser told them, just about stereotypes and prejudice. It is also about self-identity, the decisions each of us make about who we are and what we value.

"The deal is pretty simple," Fraser told them. "There are concessions people make for acceptance in life. And it's up to you to know who you are and what's important to you and how much you are willing to give up, to deny, just to fit in."

And I could see the message settle across the crowd of kids, with their gold earrings and FUBU shirts and baggy jeans, kids growing up not in the stifling claustrophobia of 1950s New England but in an era just as imposing for urban youth--an era that asks them to be cool rather than smart; be down for the homies rather than rise up for themselves.

Whatever their differences, they share a culture that unites them across racial and ethnic lines, an urban youth culture that dictates how they dress, how they talk, what music they like . . . and values street savvy more than book smarts, quick money rather than straight A's.

"You don't hear a lot of talk about college with my friends," a student named Rita told me. "Sometimes I just have to go off on my own because I need to study. Because that's what it takes to get into college."

These teenagers are luckier than most, because they are among 450 students in the College Pathways Project sponsored by the Fulfillment Fund, one of Los Angeles' oldest and most successful efforts to motivate inner-city youth.

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