There’s a small moment in Uncut Gems that, though not nearly the best or most memorable part of the movie, I’m obsessed with. Without getting too specific, I’ll just say it’s the scene when one character shows another character her new tattoo, but instead of complimenting it, the second character laments, jokingly but also not, that now she won’t be able to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
I think I’ve made variations of the same joke multiple times. I don’t even know the real Jewish law on that, to be honest—it seems like they’ve relaxed quite a few of the rules about what’s kosher, so surely they’re not still as strict about the tattoo thing? (Don’t worry, Mom, I don’t have any!) But suffice it to say I habitually make jokes about Jewish cemeteries and tattoos not because I think they’re particularly topical or funny, but because they seem like the obligatory Jewish thing to say.
This self-obsessed sense of humor is just one thing, of many, that I think Uncut Gems really gets right about being a tristate-area Jew circa the year 2019 (or 2012, when the movie takes place). Did I miss brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, the film’s directors, lurking at my grandparents’ Seders growing up? I called the two up to talk about the Jewish diaspora, Jewish pride, and their extremely Jewish film. The interview has been lightly condensed and edited.
Slate: Could you just tell me which one of your voices is which?
Benny Safdie: This is Josh.
Josh Safdie: No, no, no, no, no.
Benny: And this is Benny.
Josh: No, no. He’s fucking with you.
Benny: That was Benny.
Josh: And this is Josh.
Slate: Oy. Uncut Gems is probably your most Jewish movie so far, right?
Josh: Yeah, it is. I think that Howard, the character Adam Sandler plays, falls in a long tradition. I think the humor of the film is explicitly Jewish. I think that the concept of being a Knicks fan is explicitly Jewish. This concept of learning through suffering is very Old Testament. Obviously, we are Jewish, so that perspective is easy for us. But in addition to that, the early inspirations were these titanic 20th-century Jews, these overachievers, these overcompensators, these guys with interesting perspectives based on that, trying to work their way into society: the Rodney Dangerfields, the Lenny Bruces, the Don Rickles, the Al Goldsteins.
Benny: And then just the idea that you could have a character like Howard who could potentially appear on a Jewish Mt. Rushmore was something that was very exciting. The inspiration comes from all of these kinds of comedies. I remember listening to these records by Elaine May and Mike Nichols. And there’s just something so absurd about certain forms of Jewish humor that it just seemed to make sense that Howard would find himself in that world.
Slate: Whereas I listen to Adam Sandler’s records.
Benny: That’s how we actually were introduced to Adam. We found him through those early comedy records, and they’re so funny, and they’re so layered. You can listen to them, and there’s a full soundscape of everything that’s going on. You hear the party that’s going on in the background, or you hear just all these voices. It’s so hilarious, and they’re so absurd. And yet you feel like they’re real, and that’s what Sandler does. He kind of reifies these absurd scenarios. They’re some of the best things I remember hearing. And as kids, you learn so many interesting things about sex and humor. He’s the best. Our dad probably should not have gotten us those as kids, but I’m very grateful.
Slate: There are some stereotypical elements to the Howard character that, if you guys weren’t Jewish filmmakers working at a certain register, might raise some hackles. How did you think about dealing with and incorporating stereotypes?
Josh: Well, I think that first of all, Howard wears them proudly.
Benny: Yes. That’s the key. It’s like a superpower for him.
Josh: I think what you see in Howard is the long delineation of stereotypes that were forced onto us in the Middle Ages, when the church was created, when Jews were not counted toward population, and their only way in, their only way of accruing status as an individual, as a person who was considered a human being, was through material consumption. That was the only way in. And I think what’s happened over the years is it’s kind of morphed and almost turned into Kabuki theater. Because as assimilation has accrued, the foundation, the DNA of the strive has become kind of cartoonized in a weird way. What you’re seeing in the film is a parable. What are the ill effects of overcompensation? Why?
Benny: At all costs.
Josh: Why try to assimilate? Why not be an outsider?
Benny: When somebody tries to insult Howard, it’s like, the things that you would normally say to insult him are things that he feeds off of and is like, “Yes, that’s who I am.” It’s a very prideful thing. I think for us, one of the main things was because a lot of the times you’ll see a character on screen as a Jewish person, and you’re like, “Oh, they’re kind of nebbish, or they’re a little bit weak.”
For us, it was very important to make Howard a strong guy who doesn’t back down. I know for Sandler that was a big deal, because he’s like, “Here I am getting punched in the face all the time. I gotta smack. I gotta punch back.” That scene where he does it, where he smacks Bill in the face at the worst possible moment—Howard, you can never force him. He’ll always come back. And I think that’s key. He’s proud of that. I think you feel that, and that’s why I don’t think that the stereotypes in this sense matter because it’s like, “Oh, yeah, great. Thanks. I’m moving on.”
Slate: I think I get what it means to be an American Jew in the movie, but then thinking about Ethiopian Jews, the people Uncut Gems’ central opal comes from, it’s harder to grok. What did you want to say about the connection there?
Benny: The fact that they’re both oppressed in that sense. The Ethiopian Jews were forced to convert.
Josh: Yeah. I think that there’s a certain kinship. I often have to remind people there’s only 14 million Jews in the world. And to Howard’s character, to see a faraway people who read the same text, who are following the same story that he was following, he felt a kinship. That was exotic and beautiful to him. He felt a connection to it. That was the initial impetus for the black opal.
Benny: Yeah. And at first, one of the original basketball players was going to be Amar’e Stoudemire, and he’s black and Jewish. And so the Jewish connection there was highlighted a little bit more with him. Of course, as you change players, you have to change motivations and inspiration.
Slate: That brings us to the relationship between Jews and black Americans, another focus of the movie.
Josh: Yeah, for sure. I mean, if you go back to, obviously, the civil rights movement, I think there is a reason why there was a big Jewish involvement in that movement that came obviously on the heels of World War II. And I think that the Jewish people, I think we have a general proclivity to step up against oppression because there was oppression in our own history. It still obviously exists, but there is a strange spiritual connection.
Slate: And then just in the relationship specifically with hip-hop and Jews in the Diamond District, do you think of that as sort of another chapter in that relationship?
Josh: Yeah. It is fascinating to hang out in the Diamond District over the years and do the research and see such a confluence of different types of people. But there was a kinship, and it was almost like in a weird way, it was a celebration but also a trapping for both. I think there’s a long shared lineage using materialism to transcend, and that’s pretty cool.
Benny: I think what’s awesome about Howard is everybody in the showroom is equal. He’ll talk to everybody the same way. And I think that’s an amazing part of him that people really attach to.
Slate: The gem in the opening sequence, you actually shot that in Ethiopia yourselves, right?
Josh: Well, it actually was shot in South Africa because Ethiopia, where the actual Welo mines are, was not sanctioned by any insurance company or any production company to travel to because … it’s just dangerous right now.* We ended up shooting in O’Kiep, South Africa, aka Springbok. Luckily, South Africa is such a major hub of the continent that there is a big Ethiopian population there, and obviously an Asian population. We were able to populate the film. And that was an active mine. Well, somewhat active. It used to be very active. It was a copper mine that we repurposed to be an opal mine. That was really intense—it was a nine-day prep for a one-day shoot and about 300 extras.
Slate: Why did you think it was important for you guys to do that yourselves?
Josh: I mean, the idea of sending off a different unit is such a strange concept to me. This is the beginning of the movie; that’s not even an option. I honestly can’t even imagine the concept of someone else doing that. It’s the opening of the film. Every frame counts.
Slate: I wanted to ask about your own upbringing and how much being Jewish was a part of it.
Josh: Of course. Yeah. It vacillated between somewhat more conservative and then later reformed. And then in my own life now, it’s somewhere in-between reformed and the mystical attraction to some of the stories.
Benny: Yeah. Having kids, it makes you think more about the connection to something like that, and you want to understand a little bit more.
Josh: More than anything, the reason why I think religion is such a powerful story is it creates a connection to the past. And I think in particular, the Old Testament is mostly realist texts, more or less. You can always find an interesting simile.
Benny: As a kid, the only thing that I had was the Rugrats Passover special.
Benny: I think that there’s something about the nature of Passover being a very religious experience, but also it being just a normal time when you’re with your families and just kind of portraying that, finding the afikoman. There’s something that’s very special about putting that out there, too.
Slate: I read that when you were rewriting drafts of the screenplay for different basketball players, you also had to move around when the movie takes place, so it wasn’t always Passover as the intersecting holiday. I was surprised by that because Passover seems so right.
Josh: Well, it changed. It jumped around. It was a Shabbat dinner for a while. It was Rosh Hashanah.
Benny: Yom Kippur would have been a little bit more down. Everybody’s so sad.
Josh: Rosh Hashanah was at one point. Rosh Chodesh was another one. At one point, it was Purim. It moved around according to when the games were.
Benny: But it was always important to show something like that.
Josh: We would figure out the right metaphors.
Corrections, Dec. 31, 2019: This post originally misstated that Boko Haram was among the dangers that prevented the Safdies from shooting the movie in Ethiopia. That terrorist organization is not active in Ethiopia.