This piece was written jointly by Lonnie Kleinman and Lex Rofes.
An article about the soon-to-be-released film Selma recently appeared in the Jewish Daily Forward, a publication we both read regularly and respect immensely. The article, written by Leida Snow, is entitled “Selma Distorts History by Airbrushing Out Jewish Contributions to Civil Rights.” The assertion that Selma under-represents Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movie and “distorts” history is a claim with which we strongly disagree.
Full disclosure: We have not yet seen ‘Selma,’ which opens January 9. What we have seen is Ms. Snow’s article. Therefore, we are not responding to any alleged inaccuracies in the film– only the inaccuracies in Ms. Snow’s own piece.
Before articulating any philosophical disagreement, we believe it is important to first mention a few factual inaccuracies. We point out these inaccuracies not to demean the author, but because the historical events referenced are so crucial to our country’s history, and should be presented thoughtfully and accurately.
Snow refers to “thousands” of Freedom Riders “riding into Mississippi” in 1964. In fact, the Freedom Riders rode in 1961, and there were only 436 total riders. She also incorrectly implies that James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were freedom riders. The murder of those three civil rights workers was a tragedy that, as Snow states, provoked national outrage, but they were not involved with the Freedom Rides. We believe that, when stating “Freedom Riders,” Ms. Snow means to refer to the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, which was indeed characterized by “well over a thousand volunteers, mostly white,” risking their lives to come to Mississippi.
Factual inaccuracies aside, the broader message of her piece is deeply troubling. As the title suggests, Ms. Snow believes that the film’s failure to include Jews undermines its credibility. She states that by “excluding” Jews, the movie misses a “great teaching moment.”
We see things differently.
As Jews, we are certainly inspired by Jewish veterans of the Civil Rights movement. That said, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and the story of Selma specifically, was not “our” story. The story of Selma was about fighting to achieve justice for African-Americans, living in an unjust society.
To be sure, this movie could have mentioned Jews. It could have featured inspirational Freedom Summer veterans, as Snow asserts—and just as easily, while we may not like to admit it, it could have featured Jews like Sol Tepper, who wrote dozens of articles for the Selma Times Journal advocating for segregation and was quite hostile towards Civil Rights advocates. Good or bad, Jews could have been included more—but that’s not the focus of this film. This omission is not a “distortion.”
Selma’s producers include several people of color. Its director, Ava DuVernay, was the first ever black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe—a great milestone in film history. It is all too common for the stories of African-Americans to be told by people who are not African-American, and we all have the right to tell our own stories.
Let’s think about what Snow’s criticism would look like if directed at a movie written by Jews about Jewish oppression.
There are many movies about the Holocaust, and some of them speak only to the experiences of Jews, without including righteous Gentiles (may their memories be for a blessing). These movies have not “distorted” history. They have chosen to focus specifically on the lives of Jews who were the subject of incredible discrimination and hatred, and that editorial decision is a reasonable one. Just as we would expect Catholics to watch a Holocaust film without criticizing the editorial choice not to includecourageous acts by Catholics, we should be able to watch a film about others’ struggles without demanding that we share the spotlight.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that a core aspect of being a Jew is “the ability to experience the suffering of others.” As many of us head to theaters to watch Selma, let’s seek to hone that skill. Let’s seek to better understand the story of African-Americans – their history, their struggles, and their suffering. Doing so might not teach us much about any particular Jews. But it could teach us something about what it means to be Jewish.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
Last week, I had the unique experience of driving to Demopolis, Alabama, (the recent subject of a Forward article about disappearing Jewish communities—read my response as well) to speak about the history of one prominent Jew who was born there: Arthur Mayer. An important film industry innovator, Arthur didn’t spend very long in Demopolis. His father died just three months after his birth in 1886, and his mother moved with her infant to New York City. Yet the Southern Literary Trail, based in Alabama, claims Mayer as a native son, and they asked me to come speak about his career in the movie business and his roots in Demopolis.
Arthur’s uncle Morris Mayer came to the small Alabama town just after the Civil War in 1866. Like so many other Jewish immigrants who came South during that era, Mayer opened a dry goods store. Morris’s brothers Simon and Ludwig joined him in Demopolis in the 1870s. By one historian’s account, the Mayer brothers owned the most successful retail business in West Alabama. In 1897, they constructed a magnificent three-story brick building to house their thriving business. Tragically, Simon never saw this grand edifice, dying in 1886. Soon after Simon’s death, his wife and children left Alabama, leaving their relatives to run the business. Arthur Mayer grew up with his grandparents in New York City, and later said, “the smartest thing I ever did in my life was I left Demopolis at the age of three months.”
Mayer ended up working in the burgeoning film industry during the early 20th century. While he worked for such moguls as Samuel Goldwyn and Adolph Zukor, Mayer came from a very different background. The men who created the modern film industry were almost to a man immigrant Jews. Men like Goldwyn, Zukor, Louis B. Mayer (no relation to Arthur), and the Warner Brothers craved respectability, and wanted to leave their immigrant past behind. According to Neil Gabler, in his book An Empire of Their Own, “they wanted to be regarded as Americans, not Jews. They wanted to reinvent themselves here as new men.” They left any vestiges of the old world behind. The best example of this was Louis B. Mayer, who was born in Russia, though he claimed he had forgotten where and when. Later, he would embrace the 4th of July as his birthday.
Arthur Mayer was different. He was American born (albeit to immigrant parents). He didn’t enter the film industry after working in the glove or fur business. Mayer went to Harvard, where he majored in history and English literature at a time when Jewish students were subject to a restrictive quota. After graduating, he used his connections to get a meeting with a leading banker in New York, who sent a letter of introduction to Sam Goldwyn, who hired Mayer right away. It’s somewhat ironic that Mayer used his elite, Harvard network to get a job in the upstart Jewish film industry.
The most famous book about southern Jews is entitled The Provincials, written by Eli Evans. The idea of the southern Jew as provincial is a powerful one, and has helped mark southern Jews as distinct from Jews who lived in a place like New York. But the term “provincial” did not apply to Arthur Mayer, though perhaps it did to men like Zukor and Goldwyn, who came from Europe and often spoke in accented English. In his memoir, Merely Colossal, Mayer relates several wonderful stories about these men, playing up their malapropism, or as Mayer wittily calls it, their “trenchant misstatements.” Goldwyn was known for saying things like “include me out,” or “a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.” Mayer tells the story of how Goldwyn was trying to produce a film based on the play “The Captive,” but was warned it would be controversial because one its main characters was a lesbian. Goldwyn retorted, “we’ll get around that, we’ll just make her an American.”
Mayer later went to work as head of publicity, advertising, and promotion for Adolph Zukor at Paramount. Mayer was a great salesman, though he sometimes got into trouble with his boss for his advertising campaigns. Once, Mayer tried to advertise the first film starring Mae West by using the word “lusty” on the poster. His efforts to convince Zukor that he meant the word in terms of “lust for life” not its sexual connotations were unsuccessful, even though English was not Zukor’s native language. Perhaps the alluring picture of Mae West on the poster undercut Mayer’s argument.
Later, Mayer became the operator of the Rialto Theater in Times Square in New York City, where he specialized in showing what he called the “three M’s”: mystery, mayhem, and murder. They were called “B Movies,” because they didn’t have A-level stars or directors. When Mayer got the film reels at the Rialto, he couldn’t change the cast or the movie itself, but, using his salesman instincts, he could change the name of the movie on the outside marquee to attract more customers. To the bland title “A Son Comes Home,” Mayer added the phrase “From Gangland.” “Fit for a King,” became “Murder Fit For a King.”
Mayer is an interesting figure. He was not just the king of B movies, but he also became one of the first and most important importers of fine European films. Most notable was the Italian film The Bicycle Thief, which was recently ranked as the 6th greatest film of all time by the film magazine Sight and Sound. Although he often lost money on these foreign films, Mayer believed in them as art and continued to bring them over, helping to create the American market for foreign films.
Arthur Mayer was a hybrid of lowbrow and highbrow culture. He was also native southerner who epitomized northeastern, Ivy League educated sophistication. And yet, Mayer was a Jew working in an overwhelmingly Jewish industry. While his story differs from those of the more famous men he worked for, people like Goldwyn and Zukor, Arthur Mayer is an important figure in his own right, who deserves to be remembered.