Monday, January 19, 2015

Revisionist History ~ When A Movie Isn't Just A Movie

This past week, everyone was talking about Selma. There has been so much written about the film, both pro and con, that I am loath to write about it here, yet  I cannot escape the feeling that something must be said about not just the movie, but about history and biography in film.

The first "biopic" I remember seeing was The Miracle WorkerI was 10 years old. I think it was the first real play I'd ever read. Miss Myrus said I should read it and if she said I should jump off a bridge, I would've done that, too. But I did read it, and it changed me forever....mostly because I figured out there was a format I could use to put words in other people's mouths....something that came in handy when I decided to be a playwright. But I digress. 

Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan ~1888
The story was riveting. The movie was spellbinding. And I decided to read whatever I could find about the real Helen Keller and the real Annie Sullivan. The Story Of My Life, Keller's autobiography and the book upon which the play is based, was a bit different from the play, and my own teacher explained to me the merits of artistic license. I remember the conversation if for no other reason than Miss Myrus told me when writing a play, you have to make allowance for time and the space you are in, and sometimes things are telescoped in order to present a larger picture. But, she cautioned, it's not nice to change the truth so that people can no longer recognize it. That admonition stayed with me...and served me well. I became a reader of stuff, a collector of factoids, and when the web became something other than a spider's weaving,  the world was mine. I was the second person I knew who knew what Mosaic was. The first, of course, was Ziggy; he showed me how to ask a question.  

Mosaic begat Netscape. Netscape begat Mozilla Firefox. Google happened somewhere in there. And I no longer needed whole days at the U's library to do research on stuff. I could do it sitting at my desk at home, pin down what I needed, and if I couldn't get it on the web, I had a list of books to find on the shelves. There was no excuse any more for not doing your homework.

40 years later, I was so excited about this movie. I was anxious to see who was going to play Dr. King and the others. And I was anxious to know who would get to play Rabbi Heschel.

Dr. King is in the middle. Rabbi Heschel has the white beard
Years later, I would sit at a table in the city and listen to Rabbi Heschel talk about what it was like on that March 17th when they finally marched from Selma to Montgomery. He said it was "praying with our feet." He told us there was no way to express the emotion he had as he marched, only that it was a giant prayer, a great moment of faith, and it had to keep going even though Dr. King had been assassinated.

The more I heard about the movie, the more I wanted to hear what the director had to say. Here was a black woman, Ava DuVernay, directing a very major motion picture on a subject so important, so crucial to the social history of this nation that I believe she would share great insight into what it was like to put this on film. Then I heard Dr. Heschel and the other Jewish leaders weren't even in the film. I was crushed. 

As Ms. DuVernay said on all the chat shows, ...and finally quoted in reliable news sources as stated at a New York City luncheon celebrating the opening of SELMA:
I think everyone sees history through their own lens and I don't begrudge anyone from wanting to see what they want to see. This is what I see. That should be valid. I'm not going to argue history. I could, but I won't. 
I have a problem with that; it is is not artistic license and it is not valid. This is re-writing history according to her version. The pictures from that week, and the stories in the papers, and film clips and other reliable standard evidence tell a different story: the one where Dr. Heschel and the others are present and visible. 

Now, this might not seem like a big deal, but think about it over the long term: all the kids that are going to see this film are going to take this as an accurate accounting of the fact. They may know it's not a documentary, but as far as they're concerned, this shows who was there and what happened. 

This is a problem....and here's why. 

I had a comment about this published in the New York Times. It has a yellow NYT pick ribbon and it's the 2nd most recommended reader comment on Maureen Dowd's column: Not Just A Movie. Look for yourself. But after the comment submission closed, but the editors were still putting up the comments, the follow comment appeared under mine:


 IL Yesterday

Before he became supporter of civil rights Lyndon Johnson was a segregationist Dixiecrat protégé of Sam Rayburn and Richard Russell. After Lyndon Johnson became a civil rights activist he continued the John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy alliance with J. Edgar Hoover to spy on and harass Dr. King and other civil rights activists.

Black African Americans did most of the leading, bleeding, sweating, crying and dying for their civil rights from the end of Reconstruction to the end of the civil rights era. Black people were a physically identifiable enslaved discriminated against despised disenfranchised socioeconomically politically educationally weak minority.

The Black- Jewish "alliance" was among the elite. While most poor Blacks then and now had to deal with the tiresome condescending paternalism combination of pity and contempt from their Jewish "friends". About 5000 black men, women and children were lynched. The film "Selma" is about and told from the perspective of the Black African American holocaust which happened in America to Americans by Americans. Rabbi Henschel was no Schwerner, Goodman nor Levison.

Blacks died and were wounded fighting in every American war for a country that denied their humanity as persons and their equality for most of it's [sic] history. And the unsung Black giants are legion. Edgar Daniel Nixon, Joanne Robinson, Diane Nash, Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, Robert Moses and Fred Gray.

When will the life of Judah P. Benjamin become a film?
[My highlight]

Blackmamba apparently wants to live up to his/her reputation as a highly poisonous snake because this is pure poison.  The Judah Benjamin reference is racist and antisemitic all at the same time. Plus, he/she couldn't even be bothered to get Dr. Heschel's name right. How are we supposed to respond to this? How do we get to set the record straight when the message is tainted in this way?  And no, this is not the first time I've seen Blackmamba's thinly veiled antisemitic screed. 

We worry about Jews in Paris. We worry about BDS and Gaza and the West Bank and all that other stuff....for good reason. But I think we might not be worrying enough about what is happening here, in the United States. People like Blackmamba are out there and they are looking for ways to throw us all if not under the bus....into the ovens. This is not to be lightly dismissed; this is just one more canary in the coal mine. Either we begin to address this directly, or we continue to put ourselves at peril. Blackmamba and his/her ilk will not go away if we ignore them. 

The big question really is: what do we do next?

Wifely Person's Tip o' the Week
Going to the movies to see a biopic?
Bring your skepticism along with the Milk Duds you're smuggling in.


  1. I started reading this post, nodding my head in agreemen ...t and then you made a sharp right turn that prompted this comment. I have not seen the film and will not as I find this genre frustrating. Even moreso, I am frustrated with those who feel that Johnson was misrepresented, that whites were misrepresented, that unsung blacks were not represented and now that Jews were not represented. It is a movie. Criticism is your right. As it is for the person you quote. I understand your vigilance and your passion. But, as one who is still living a holocaust perpetrated every day, I think your furor is misdirected.

  2. Susan, You might want to read an article in Tablet "Israelis in Berlin" by James Kirchich. He wrote about the Israeli Jews who have moved to Berlin and are expressing anti-Zionist feelings. This is my response to your question,"What do we do next?" Lorraine Hertz

  3. Reading about the controversy over Selma got me here and then looking up Rabbi Heschel, so that's good.
    Historical movies and tv shows make me promise myself to read about what really happened. E.g. both the Canal+ and (much worse) Showtime Borgias.
    I'll probably see Selma when it's conveniently streaming.
    LBJ: too bad he's not in the movie as Caro describes him: power & politics came first, he knew where the bodies were buried and counted votes in Congress better than anyone, but, when the politics was taken care of, had a real concern for the suffering of the poor and oppressed of all races.