From a Potential Collision Comes a Tightknit Club

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 29, 2005

After catching up on their personal lives -- one member had become a U.S. citizen since their meeting the month before -- and swapping opinions of the new, blond James Bond, the neighbors in Rockville's King Farm community, sitting on a couch and chairs around a circular coffee table piled with nuts, pretzels and caramel popcorn, finally got down to business.

They had not gathered to discuss the proliferation of dog droppings in the neighborhood, though this subject would come up in conversational tangents over the next two hours. Rather, the 15 people -- male and female, conservative and liberal, a white Navy nurse and an Indian woman who lived in Kenya and studies alternative medicine -- were there to talk about how race is lived in America as part of their book and film club.

There are plenty of book clubs in Montgomery County for those of a literary bent. They are organized by co-workers, neighbors and students, among others. The Rockville branch of the county's public library system runs four book discussion groups, from a "no pressure" group not requiring a particularly serious commitment to others focusing on Chinese and African American literature. Other branches have clubs for youngsters and teenagers, and there is a club in Fairland in which participants can submit their own writing for the group to read.

What distinguishes the 1 1/2 -year-old King Farm Book & Film Club from most others is the varied backgrounds of its participants, its mix of men and women and the provocative nature of much of its reading and viewing material.

Past films have included the stridently antiwar documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Maria Full of Grace," the story of a young Colombian woman who turns to smuggling drugs into the United States. They've also read "Life of Pi," about a shipwrecked Indian boy who survives among wild animals, and "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," a mystery told through the eyes of a boy with Asperger's syndrome.

The topic in October was no exception: Meeting at the home of Anita Levenson, a recreational therapist, members of the club were to talk about the movie "Crash." The film's title refers to the points at which the lives of the characters, Los Angeles residents of various races and classes, intersect. In one plotline, a well-off black couple deals with the harassment of a racist white police officer who later saves the life of the woman he terrorized; in another, a conflict between an Iranian store owner and a Hispanic locksmith reaches an emotionally wrenching climax.

When it came out in late 2004, "Crash" received generally positive reviews for presenting a nuanced discussion of a subject so delicate that many Americans refuse to talk about it except in private. The group's chief organizer, Victoria Ross, trusted that the conversation would not veer in a direction that would have participants throwing chairs at one another.

Holding a list of questions meant to guide the discussion, Ross, 43, offered the first comment: "He made us think, and sometimes that's enough in a film." She asked members to grade the movie from A to F, but they seemed reluctant.

"I don't like to grade it. I found it terribly disturbing," said Madeline Nevins, a 70-year-old former Catholic nun from New England. "Because there's no solution."

"I found myself angry. Unfortunately, these things continue to happen every day," said Carol Seidman, a retired nurse from Long Island, N.Y. "We're going back instead of going forward."

When it came time for Judy Salomon to talk, Ross knew to expect something wild. Salomon, 58, a first-grade teacher at Bells Mill Elementary School, didn't disappoint.

"I think it was the first time I ever wanted to slap Sandra Bullock," she said, to general approval. Bullock plays the high-strung wife of the district attorney. After the couple is carjacked by a pair of young black men, she explodes in a tirade laced with racial slurs.

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