I have heard the philosophical quote “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see” by Henry David Thoreau for years without paying much attention to the power of the quote. But seeing the biopic Civil Rights movie “Selma” this weekend with my wife brought alive the quintessential wisdom of Henry Thoreau.
The hurricane of reactions that have accompanied the release of this iconic movie from virtually all quarters of the America further reveals to me the fissiparous American society. The movie sparks reactions from the Jewish community – they claim that they contributions of the honorable Rabbi Joshua Heschel were conspicuously excluded in the storyline. And many whites are extremely pissed off because they feel that the movie denied former President Lyndon Johnson of his symbolic messianic figure in history since he was instead portrayed as being reluctant to save black people.
As much as I respect the reactions from these quarters, I strongly consider them to be distractions from the message and focus of the movie. Had Rabbi Heschel been alive today what would he say in response to the reactions? I can hear the spiritual volcano express to those who have complained about his exclusion from the movie, “I thank you so much for your passionate love and care for me. But if you truly love and care about me, extend that love and passion to the ideals that embodied the core of my existence, justice and equally for the human race. My love for justice and participation in the Civil Rights movement was not a popularity contest but borne out of the passion centered around adding value in its abundance to the full restoration of the human dignity of the oppressed.”
Those outraged by the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson should know that there are two judges of all human actions, conscience and history. Selma represents history told within the unbiased narrative power of history itself. Selma tells the unsanitized history of a people with bombastic bluntness, revealing both the strengths and weaknesses of key players in that era including the Civil Rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King. We all know that President Johnson wasn’t perfect – he was crude and rude aside from his activities in the Civil Rights Movement. To be outraged by his depiction in the movie based on historical accuracy, then, is to be decidedly unrealistic. All I can say to my white brothers and sisters is that they should get used to hearing the uncomfortable truths of history. The Lion is now well equipped to tell his own side of the story; history will no longer glorify the hunter!
What I saw while watching Selma was the longevity of terrorism perpetrated against black people in America being resisted against all odds. I saw the 1963 terrorist bombing of a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that cut short the precious lives of four, little innocent African-American angels – Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. I saw black people being beaten and even killed for simply demanding our right to vote and be full participants in America as fellow citizens, as fellow human beings. Unfortunately, 52 years after the heartbreaking deaths of these black children, and 50 years after we marched for human dignity, black people are yet to be human in America. In 2015, we are still marching, still protesting acts of terror administered by the state police and white supremacists who refuse to see the beauty and value in the color of our skin.
The movie Selma is not a hagiographic portrait of Dr. King or President Johnson. Neither is Selma about finger pointing or guilting white people; if that was the case the gallant contributions of great and towering figures such as the honorable Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo will not have been told. For me, it was about revealing and bringing to our national radar those inconvenient truths about our American history – truths that have been lost in our culture of pleasure, addiction to success, materialism, and political pietism. Selma is unapologetically black, strong, and infused with a black prophetic spirit because its chief aim is to create hope and courage needed for the actualization of freedom and dignity for all irrespective of race!