James Baldwin, the novelist, has written: “I suppose one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once their hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with the pain.” This drama, based on the first novel by Arthur Miller, is set in the 1940s and revolves around a couple living in Brooklyn who are mistaken as Jews by some bigots. Although taking place in the past, Focus has relevance to the rampant racial and religious prejudice still alive in America today.
Lawrence Newman (William H. Macy) is a quiet and unassuming office worker who lives at home with his invalid mother (Kay Hewtrey). His workplace has a policy of not hiring Jews. When he starts wearing glasses, he is mistaken for a Jew by a visiting superior who advances a subordinate instead of him. Newman quits in a huff.
On the home front, this mild-mannered man is shocked when garbage cans are overturned on his lawn. Fred (Meat Loaf Aday) who is a member of a well-organized hate group called “Union Crusaders,” doesn’t quite know what to make of his neighbor. Newman becomes more feisty after marrying Gertrude (Laura Dern), a spirited looker who also has been mistaken as a Jew. Finding themselves a target of hate, they draw nearer to Finkelstein (David Paymer), a Jewish immigrant who owns a newsstand on their block and has been severely harassed.
Neal Slavin directs this sober-minded drama. Fear of change, and the pain it may involve, is what compels the bigots on Newman’s street to attack those who are “other.” Despite its slow-pace and heavy-handed didacticism, Focus convincingly shows us that the American ideal of ethnic and religious diversity has long been a dream and rarely a reality.