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Paying a high price for escapes

Films view a pop star's demise, Jewish refugees' haven amid segregation.

May 29, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

There's a Cannes Directors Fortnight selection in the 19th annual Israel Film Festival: Erez Laufer's "Mike Brant -- Laisse-moi t'aimer" (Let Me Love You), an exceptionally comprehensive and penetrating documentary on an Israeli pop singer from a working-class Haifa neighborhood who found virtual overnight stardom in Paris in the '70s.

As one of Brant's first producers remarks, Brant "had everything it takes": a big, beautiful, wonderfully supple voice -- he could do a terrific impression of Louis Armstrong; he was tall, dark and movie-star handsome; he had wit, style and a sense of humor; and he was sexy, resembling Jim Morrison.

He also was a sensitive, caring young man determined always to do his very best, a son of Holocaust survivors who was finally overwhelmed by the relentless demands placed on him to work constantly -- touring, recording and coping with hordes of fans. On April 25, 1975, severely depressed and still recovering from a suicide attempt five months earlier, Brant apparently jumped to his death from his sixth-floor Paris apartment. He was 28.

Laufer meticulously offers a trove of archival footage and interviews to Brant to create a classic portrait of a pop idol struggling under ever-increasing pressures and obligations while becoming increasingly isolated. Above all, Laufer succeeds in evoking a tragic sense of inevitability to Brant's fate.

The Laemmle Theaters' "Bagels and Docs: New Jewish Documentaries" series continues with Lori Cheatle's "From Swastika to Jim Crow," which calls attention to a phenomenon not widely known: that among some 1,200 Jewish scholars who fled Nazi Germany to the U.S., some 50 ended up at African American colleges in the Deep South.

No matter how prestigious the credentials of these professors, representing the full spectrum of the classic disciplines, they faced the challenge of finding positions at a time when the effects of the Depression lingered and anti-Semitism was on the rise. Those who landed jobs at African American colleges and universities considered themselves lucky but had immediately to deal with a racist society in which segregation was total. One professor recalls extending a student a second invitation to visit his home -- and receiving a death threat; another made headlines in the local paper and was fined $25 for sitting with a student in a restaurant.

With the advent of the McCarthy era, many of the professors were investigated as possible Communists and later would involve themselves in the civil rights movement. Crammed with archival footage both rare and familiar in addition to a clutch of incisive interviews, the 57-minute film records interracial relationships at their most harmonious and productive.

The Hollywood Black Film Festival opens a six-day run at the Harmony Gold Preview House in Hollywood with "For Real." The smooth-running comedy with a sharp edge is described by star Tim Reid, who also directed, as " 'My Fair Lady' in the 'hood." Shirley Pierce's script centers on a sophisticated, highly successful entertainment attorney (Reid) who unexpectedly winds up taking in his longtime housekeeper (Kweli Leapart) and her trouble-prone 18-year-old niece (Tamara Curry). Curry's CeCe is a beauty with a ton of attitude hiding a lifetime of despair; when her singing talent surfaces, Reid begins to view her differently. "For Real" is a modest but polished production better suited to the tube than the big screen.



"Mike Brant -- Laisse-moi t'aimer": Sunday, 3 p.m., Laemmle's Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino. Sunday, 7:30 p.m.; Tuesday, 5:15 p.m.; June 8, 9:30 p.m. Laemmle's Fairfax, 7907 Beverly Blvd. (877) 966-5566.

"From Swastika to Jim Crow": Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m., Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (323) 848-3500. Also June 7 and 8, 11 a.m., at Laemmle's Monica 4, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica. (310) 394-9741. And June 14 and 15 at Laemmle's Fallbrook 7, 6731 Fallbrook Ave., West Hills. (818) 340-8710.

"For Real": Tuesday, 7:30 p.m., Harmony Gold Preview House, 7655 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (310) 712-3998.

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