Fresh Controversy Hits ‘Selma’: Daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel ‘Shocked’ by Exclusion of Her Father From Film
by Dovid Efune
The recently released film ‘Selma’ is facing a fresh controversy after the daughter of a famed rabbi who was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement told The Algemeiner she was “shocked and upset” by the exclusion of her father from the movie.
Susannah Heschel, a Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, whose father Abraham Joshua Heschel marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King at the third protest march from Selma depicted in the film, said that the iconic photo of her father marching with Dr. King “has meant so much to so many people,” even President Obama.
“President Obama said to me ‘your father is our hero’, everybody knows that picture,” Heschel said. “I felt sad and I had moments when I felt angry,” she said of the omission, describing it as “tragic.”
Since its release, the film, which portrays a key turning point in the fight for civil rights in the United States, has been surrounded by controversy. Its unsympathetic portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson has been roundly condemned as inaccurate, and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd described it as “artful falsehood.”
A flurry of criticism also emerged surrounding recognition for the film by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with accusers claiming that the film was overlooked.
The film’s producer, Ava DuVernay, defended her inaccurate portrayals in an interview on PBS, saying: “This is art; this is a movie; this is a film. I’m not a historian. I’m not a documentarian.”
But Heschel dismissed the defense, saying that while some creative licence is acceptable, there is a limit to how far one can go.
“If you made a film of the 1960s and showed black people enjoying segregation in the South, you can’t just say it’s a film and not a documentary,” she said.
Heschel mentioned Dowd’s column, in which she describes how black youths were enthralled by the film at a viewing she had attended.
“Think what it would have meant to them to see a rabbi with a beard marching at Selma,” Heschel said. “Why excise that, that great coalition that everybody talks about.”
In a column for the JTA, published on Sunday, Heschel also laments the film’s depiction of events as purely “political protest” and not as a “profoundly religious moment: an extraordinary gathering of nuns, priests, rabbis, black and white, a range of political views, from all over the United States.”
“By not showing my father marching, it is depriving the viewers of that inspiration,” she told The Algemeiner on Sunday.
“My father felt that the prophetic tradition of Judaism had come alive at Selma,” Susannah Heschel wrote. “He said that King told him it was the greatest day in his life, and my father said that he was reminded at Selma of walking with Hasidic rebbes in Europe. Such was the spiritual atmosphere of the day.
“When he returned, he famously said, ‘For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.'”
“This filmmaker seems to want to try and change the narrative,” she told The Algemeiner. “It is about black people trying to do it themselves.”
“I understand this as a Jew, because that is what Zionism is about, but I know that we were helped by others, and the Civil Rights Movement was about coalition, it was about Christians and Jews coming together, marching together, and feeling at that moment in Selma that something profoundly religious and moral was taking place.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel, who died in 1972, was born in Poland and came to the US in 1940. He is considered by many to be among the leading Jewish theologians of the 20th century and is revered as an icon of liberal Jewish values.