Thursday, January 22, 2015

"Selma": Was omission of Heschel on purpose -- or a Hollywood blooper?

As I discussed in my previous article, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was front and center in the iconic photo of the Selma march, but was apparently replaced by a generic rabbi extra in the movie.   I have puzzled over this for several days, read lots of discussion about it, and come up with a few theories about why it might have happened.

The original photo:  John Lewis of SNCC, an unidentified nun, 
Rev. Ralph Abernathy; Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., 
Ralph Bunche (former U.S. Ambassador to the UN), 
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rev. Fred Shuttleswort

Please note that these are only my personal theories, because Ava DuVernay has not, as far as I know, given any explanation other than "this is art not a documentary" and she did not want to make a "white hero movie."   But that does not explain why there is no actor made up to look like Heschel in this scene.  Especially since there are other white people in the lineup with King in her version.  So why no Heschel?  That's all it would have taken to avoid all this controversy.  Just show it like it was.

I would sure love to have DuVernay come here and tell us why she made this bad decision.  But since neither she nor Oprah answered my tweets on the subject, I suppose I'll just have to guess on my own.  Yes, I've read all the antisemitism and conspiracy theories, but I find myself wondering if it isn't something much simpler:  a major Hollywood blooper.  It would not be the first time.  But if so, it's a whole lot bigger blooper than a water bottle on Downton Abbey.  So here goes:

A still from the movie.  That guy on the right is no Heschel.
 And what's with that suitcase he is carrying?
Theory #1:  Maybe DuVernay didn't know who Heschel was, and thought she could just plug in some generic rabbi to fill the slot.  I'm pretty sure she had no idea how iconic his image is to Jews, or she would not have made this blooper.  I mean, would she have substituted some generic priest for the Pope in a famous scene?   Heschel was, in his own way, equally important, as one of the foremost theologians of the 20th century.  But what if DuVernay did not know that?

Theory #2:  Maybe Heschel did not look "rabbinical" enough for her take on the scene.  If you compare her version with the original, you'll see that Heschel is not the only change in the lineup.  The original doesn't have an Eastern Orthodox priest in clerical garb or a minister (priest?) in a visible clerical collar.  On the other hand the movie version does not have the "unidentified nun" dressed in a habit like the original.  So it appears that DuVernay was doing a sort of visual smorgasbord, plugging in what she thought would be easily recognizable to her viewers as an interfaith scene.  ("A rabbi, a minister, and a priest marched at Selma...")

Theory #3:  If she didn't know who Heschel was, then maybe DuVernay did not recognize the Heschel figure as a rabbi, and thought he was just some old hippie.  So she did a switcheroo to fit her visual imagery.  After all, Heschel usually wore a beret, not a yarmulke, which is what most gentiles think of as Jewish clergy garb.  But if this is the case, then her research crew really blew it.

Theory #4: Maybe DuVernay thought Heschel was too disheveled and hippie-like for her 21st-century take on the scene.  Again comparing the original to the still, there has been quite a bit of sprucing up.  The original characters all look a bit wrinkled, as indeed they would be, after hours of getting ready for the march.  Heschel himself flew out immediately after the Sabbath ended on Saturday in order to be there on Sunday -- no time for a trip to the barber.  But Duvernay's actors are as natty as can be, not a wrinkle or speck of dirt in sight, not a hair out of place.  And the substitute rabbi is perfectly neat and clean-shaven.  Maybe that is the "art" part of it that DuVernay refers to.  Creating a tableau instead of a recreation of history.

But if personal appearance was why Heschel was removed, then I wonder what she would have done with a movie about Einstein?  Given him a shave and a haircut?  But then, she would have known who Einstein was, would have realized how instantly recognizeable his "disheveled" appearance is.

Heschel and King
Which brings us back to my original question:  Did DuVernay even know who Heschel was?  Of course, I have no way of knowing what was in her head.  I just have a hard time believing she would purposely edit out Heschel if she knew how close he was to King, who called him "my rabbi" and compared him to the biblical prophets.   I really do think she had no idea how important Heschel was in the Jewish community, or how well-known the original photo is.  This does not excuse ignorance or bad research, but maybe it does explain why she made such a terrible blooper on this famous historical scene.


Anonymous said...

Hollywood all over, disregard the facts and make everything beautiful (perhaps I should say manicured).

How are the new kitties?


jd said...

I agree it is a question and I'd like to hear Duvernay's answer. But the movie was about Selma and black people. So I don't think other folks should get bent out of shape about left outness. FWIW Ralph Bunche and Fred Shuttlesworth were also left out - and Shuttlesworth was much more central to this story then Heschel- as I understand it.

Yonassan Gershom said...

The movie might have been "about black people" but I am old enough to actually remember the civil rights movement and it was not ONLY about black people. Jews were very actively involved because we, too, were discriminated against. There were actually signs in places that said "No Negros, Jews, or dogs allowed" and there were plenty of hotels, neighborhoods, businesses, universities, etc. that would not serve Jews. The University of Minnesota had a quota of how many Jews they would accept. The Sierra Club refused membership to Jews. I myself was turned down for a job because I would not sign a statement that I had accepted Jesus as my savior -- and this was in Pennsylvania, not the Deep South. So Jews are not trying to horn in on a story "about black people." We just resent being edited out of a story we took part in.

Also, Jews had just come out of the Holocaust so we were VERY, VERY sensitized to issues of discrimination against others as well as Jews. I heard LOTS of comparisons of Jim Crow with the Nazis at the time and "never again" applied to everyone, not just us Jews. Things were not so balkanized in America as they are today. It was people of a lot of backgrounds working together.

Sadly, this part of history seems to be getting lost, and the Selma movie is going to be a big part of that loss. Duvernay might say it is "artistic license" but people get their ideas of history from movies and a lot of young people are going watch this and have no idea that Heschel even existed. What could have been a movie to unite us had created more divisions. Every Jewish kid who has ever seen the original photo or footage is going to be asking his rabbi why Heschel wasn't in the movie. So nu, what do we tell them?

It is not just about Heschel as a person; it is about what Heschel represents to Jews and the world. His book "the Prophets," which defined them as social activists and not fortunetellers, was seminal in the development of "liberation theology" and contributed a great deal toward galvanizing Jews and Christians toward social activism -- an influence that continues to this day. Heschel was also actively involved with Vatican II and met with both Pope John XXIII and his advisors in revising Catholic doctrine to be more resoectful of Jews and other religions -- an impact that continues today. So Heschel was a big part of the movement in many ways.

It would not have taken away from the "story about black people" to have Heschel appear in this one scene. He would not even have needed to have any lines -- just BE VISIBLY THERE as he was in the real event. Is that so much to ask? So I cannot help but wonder WHY Duvernay replaced him with some generic Hollywood extra.

Anonymous said...

i saw this comment on another post and thought it was appropriate for this piece:

The film maker and Oprah Winfrey should be queried frankly as to why Rabbi Heschel was omitted. Let them state openly their reason because it was not an oversight.

I think the reason was latent antisemitism of the variety of the Black Power movement in the mid 60s which not only said we don’t need the Jews but “who needs the Jews?”.

The best response, now that the film has been made is for a proper film to be made specifically about Heschel and King.

Fix the problem by focusing closely on the solution: tell the real story of Heschel’s importance not only in King’s life but how his books were owned and read and carried around by so many Black civil rights leaders at that time.

Perhaps they can open the film with footage of the “Selma”
film maker and Oprah admitting why they really omitted Heschel. It’s not the first time non-Jews tried to erase Jews from history. “Truth will sprout from the earth and righeousness will peer from heaven” Tehillim-Psalms 85:12.

Yonassan Gershom said...

Could be you are right. I don't know much about DuVernay, so I can't really speak to her reasons. But I find it had to attribute antisemitism to Oprah, given her record of openness to many cultures. However, she was not the primary director (probably just lending her name to it, plus doing a bit part) so who knows who made the final decisions?

There is a documentary about Heschel in the making. Info at: which I assume will have footage covering him & King as well as his other accomplishments. It probably won't get as much media coverage as "Selma," though.

northierthanthou said...

i suspect you are right. She probably didn't even know.

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Anonymous said...

I think the film maker knew who Heschel was and made a very conscious decision to omit him and any Jews. Even if she didn't know, there are enough people around who do who would've informed her of his significance. ML King called Heschel "My rabbi." The film maker engaged in a dastardly rewriting of history to erase Jews from a seminal moment in the US Civil Rights Movement. If she could, she probably would have omitted Goodman and Schwerner from Freedom Summer and only included Chaney. I think the film maker is the kind of antisemite who resents and rejects any Jewish involvement in Black American history, except of course, if it is a negative stereotype.
First she said it was a film, not a documentary and she could do what she wanted. Later, it appears she may have said that her film represents accurate history. It's one thing to show your opinion; it's another to claim your opinion is definitive history.
Just like Holocaust revisionists (wonder where she stands on that one?) want to erase history and then blame the Jews for it; Ava Duvernay wants to erase the most significant Jew (and all Jews) in the US Civil Rights Movement: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Hopefully, in time, she will pay the price of a film gone to oblivion. Hopefully a more responsible film maker will tell the true story. The story that matches the many documentaries that include Heschel and the Jews who struggled, were beat into wheelchairs or died for the cause of Black Civil Rights in America.