Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was a pioneer who stood alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the march on Selma and the fight for civil rights in America. And viewers of the film Selma will never know that fact, because director Ava DuVernay elected to eliminate Heschel from the film.
In an op-ed for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Heschel’s daughter Susannah writes:
The 50th anniversary of the 1965 march at Selma is being commemorated this year with the release of the film “Selma.” Regrettably, the film represents the march as many see it today, only as an act of political protest.
But for my father Abraham Joshua Heschel and for many participants, the march was both an act of political protest and 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.
…My father felt that the prophetic tradition of Judaism had come alive at Selma. 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.
…What a pity that my father’s presence is not included in “Selma.” More than a historical error, the film erases one of the central accomplishments of the civil rights movement, its inclusiveness, and one of King’s great joys: his close friendship with my father. The photograph reminds us that religious coalitions can transcend and overcome political conflicts, and it also reminds us that our Jewish prophetic tradition came alive in the civil rights movement. Judaism seemed to be at the very heart of being American.
In an interview with the Algemeiner, Heschel commented further:
“I felt sad and I had moments when I felt angry,” she said of the omission, describing it as “tragic.” …“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.”
According to the Algemeiner, “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.'”