A Facebook friend of mine recently posted an article from The Jewish Daily Forward with the bold headline: “‘Selma’ Distorts History by Airbrushing Out Jewish Contributions to Civil Rights”. It may not be ladylike, but I immediately snorted at the use of the word “airbrushing” — which seemed to be an awkward alternative to the term “whitewashing”. But I mean, they couldn’t use that word in a piece that demands white people (Jewish and otherwise) their due recognition. I was honestly baffled at the presumptuous nature of such a sentiment.
The film, directed by Ava DuVernay, was intended to be an exploration of a moment in time. DuVernay reveals a story of Dr. King that complicates the man that has been largely mythologized into a symbol of racial peace, rather than remembered as a great human being. It was not intended to be a historical film that captured every aspect of the Civil Rights Movement, so why are some Jews kvetching over being excluded? The story is not our own. Jewish Americans contributed a great deal to the Civil Rights Movement but this was not the moment to let that fact shine.
The article makes a point of stating that the brunt of the work done was “led and suffered by African Americans … Nevertheless, white contributions to the ongoing war against discrimination should be noted.” This sense of entitlement and expectation of recognition seems outlandish and frankly embarrasses me as a white Jewish American who cares about racial justice today. Do we only contribute to the cause so that we can be recognized when the fight is “won”? Last time I checked, that ranked pretty low on the Maimonides Ladder of Tzedakah. I do not think the Jews that marched alongside Dr. King or lost their lives during the Freedom Summer did it so there would be a movie made about them.
The author points out that over half of the participants in the 1964 Freedom Summer were Jewish, how could their contributions be so completely overlooked in this film? The Freedom Summer was a major contribution to the momentum that led to the march from Selma to Montgomery. It would be irresponsible and obviously incorrect to portray the events in Selma without noting that they built on years of work previously, this much is true. Contrary to most public school civics textbooks, the Civil Rights Movement was not a linear series of events, nor was Dr. King’s life. In an interview on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, DuVernay speaks of how she thought of Dr. King prior to making this film. She described thinking of him as “a brave man, a courageous man, but not really a man, ya know, more of an idea.” She counted on her fingers listing the most commonly known highlights of a great man’s life, “He believed in nonviolence, he had a dream, he believed in peace, he died. Those are the broad strokes of what I think people understand about him.” We remember the struggle for voting rights and racial equality during MLK’s time in broad strokes. Jewish Americans see themselves as a component of these broad strokes and are proud to have participated in the fight. However, just as Dr. King’s life was more complex than one speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, their participation is not the only thing–or even one of the most important things–that mattered.
This film works so hard to take a snapshot of a moment in time in Dr. King’s life that was pivotal for the entire country. It does this in the face of decades of mythologizing MLK and whittling a long hard fight down to a few matches and speeches. If you walked out of the theatre feeling left out as a white Jewish American, then I think you are simply missing the point. How often is black history completely erased in dominant culture and classrooms? How often have white people appropriated, pillaged, and exploited black culture with no consequences? Sure, maybe it’s a surprising oversight on the part of the filmmakers to not focus a couple seconds of screen time on Rabbi Heschel and other brave Jews who fought alongside Dr. King. But is that really what matters at this point?
It makes me wonder if we need to ask ourselves why it is so important to us to be represented in this piece. The more obvious inclusion of Jewish participation in the fight might have helped us feel more distant from the rest of the racist white bigots in this country. I would argue that most white Americans want to feel like they’re on the right side of racial history, throwing their hands up in innocence and claiming that no, we’re not racist! We don’t even see race! The fact is that we need to stop grasping for qualifiers and excuses. Join the fight selflessly because it is what’s right and just, don’t join so you’ll get a prize for participation.
It probably would have been nice, and seemingly more accurate, to include more images of Jewish involvement in the march from Selma to Montgomery. But to call it out as a major flaw in a film that otherwise works hard to tell a truer and more complex story of this moment in history just comes off sounding self-centered and childish.
Fresh out of the warmth and safety of undergrad, Tali has been stumbling through adulthood in eastern Pennsylvania since May 2014. By day, she fights for reproductive justice as a Grassroots Organizer with Planned Parenthood. By night, she is an avid Tumblr-er of all things feminist, Harry Potter, and Daenerys Targaryen.
Header image courtesy of SelmaMovie.com