Everyday People is an ensemble piece centered on Raskin’s, a long established Jewish diner in a part of Brooklyn now more populated by Blacks than by Jews. While, in the real world, serious conflict between Black and Jewish communities in Brooklyn has been the stuff of headlines, here there’s a sense of the classic melting pot, of people living and working side-by-side. At the same time, director Jim Mckay (Our Song) drops just enough ethnic slurs into the dialogue to dispel any idea that some sort of ideal community has been achieved. New Yorkers learn to accommodate to diversity, but ingrained prejudices endure.
McKay, who developed his screenplay in part out of a workshop for potential actors in the film, uses the crisis created by the imminent sale of Raskin’s to real estate developers to explore the lives of a variety of the employees and neighborhood characters. Of the central characters, six are Black, two are Jewish, and one is a white woman with a mixed race child.
Ira (Jonathan Gelber), the owner of the restaurant, has been watching business decline as the neighborhood has deteriorated. The opportunity to sell out for a good price is hard to refuse, especially under pressure from his father, who was the boss before he retired.Ira also feels a sense of responsibility to his employees, most of whom will have difficulty finding other work, but he doesn’t have the backbone to let them know about the imminent closing himself and lets the Black manager of the diner make the announcement to a meeting of the staff.
Among the best realized characters is Joleen (Bridget Barkan), the cashier, a single mother, a white woman who is into Black men. McKay gives a sense of her harried life, holding down her job where she occasionally has to deal with abusive customers, finding friends to take care of her son while she’s at work. City-wise, but sensitive, Joleen is in an uphill struggle that is seriously threatened if she loses her job. Her friends are trying to convince her to work at the strip club where they earn more in a few hours than she does in a week.
Samel (Billoah Greene) is headed for college (Howard, not Harvard, he points out at one point). Raised by a white foster-mother, she’s urging him to reconnect with his long-estranged father, a painful prospect for Samel, but evidently necessary so that his foster mother can adopt him legally.
Erin (Sydnee Stewart) is from the Black middle class. Her mom (Iris Little-Thomas) is in management with Banana Republic, ambitious for herself and for her daughter. But Erin has quit college and wants only to write rap poetry. She has found her passion and neither mother nor her white writing teacher can convince her of the impossibility of earning a living as a poet. A confrontation between mother and daughter is one of the more effective scenes in the film.
Other characters are less successfully realized–an officious Black political activist with a bad attitude, the Jewish dishwasher bitter over his past mistakes, the black real estate developer who is pushing the deal to buy Raskin’s. While there are some scenes, typically of interaction between two of the players, that are touching and incisive, McKay never brings it all together into a cohesive dramatic whole. As in Our Song, he introduces appealing and interesting characters, but he spreads his film too thinly over too many of them, resulting in sketches, rather than portraits. The points are made, but they skim over the emotional surface and, since not enough is ever known about any one of the characters, it’s impossible to respond to them with deep feeling. McKay also fails to avoid the sense of too deliberate patterning–the characters seem a schematic group, each drawn to make a particular point about racial or economic or family relationships. For effective drama, the points should grow out of strong characters, not the other way around.
McKay does achieve a strong sense of place in Everyday People–the neighborhood, the diner, the general milieu. All catch a distinctive New York tone. And, to its credit, the film has a more polished look than did Our Song. If only McKay would aim for more focused character development, his demonstrated skills might add up to some terrific movies.