“Selma,” Film Criticism, History, and Racism

Radio show host Limbaugh speaks at a forum hosted by the Heritage Foundation in Washington

Here’s my take. Much of the criticism of “Selma” is accurate. However, why is there so much criticism of “Selma,” but not of other Hollywood historical films? it’s not the substance of the criticism which I find problematic, but the ferocity and amount of it.

From what I know, LBJ and King were partners in the civil rights process, but that relationship later fell apart over the Vietnam War. I’m sure that King was pushing harder for the Voting Rights Act than Johnson, but the dynamic was a lot more subtle than “Selma” shows. I also did not find Tom Wilkinson’s portrayal of Johnson at all convincing. It just didn’t ring right for me. Personally, I was particulary bothered by the absence of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was replaced by a Greek Orthodox figure. This photo of King and Heschel from the Selma march is iconic, and one has to wonder what was the motive for air-brushing out a prominent Jewish activist. Does this say something about current Jewish-Christian and African-American-Jewish relations? Was this an attempt at Christianizing a more diverse event? Is this about Israel? Or is there something else going on, some kind of Hollywood soap opera? Anyway, I think it’s fair to say that many Jews were saddened by this.

That said, “Selma” was a powerful film with brilliant portrayals of Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King. It shows a flawed hero and the importance of community activism. King did not come out of nowhere, but emerges out of a broad movement (which also includes women).

Where was the same criticism of “Lincoln,” which edited out the prominent role of Frederick Douglas? More recently, the “Imitation Game” played fast and loose with the story of Alan Turing. Turing was not as difficult and rude a person as Cumberbatch portrays (though I thought his portrayal was nevertheless also brilliant). The Turing machine was much smaller than the one depicted. There were others that worked on this project before Turing, particularly Polish mathematicians (never once mentioned). And the depiction of Commander Denniston as a hectoring, bureaucratic bully is not accurate either (thanks to Dianne Bazell for this info).

Ben Affleck’s “Argo” won an Oscar for best picture in 2013, and yet the entire film was essentially a fiction that had little to do with the historical event depicted with Iran and the Khomeini revolution. “Argo” makes “Selma,” “Lincoln,” and “imitation Game” look like milquetoast documentaries (which I realize is unfair to documentaries–a genre that I love). Looking at “Argo” is no better than watching “Quo Vadis” in order to understand the historical Roman world and early Christianity. I noted this in an essay on my blog in 2013, and there were others who did so as well, but the bigger-click oped writers carried the day: and they loved “Argo.” There was very little prominent or strong criticism of “Argo.”

Why do “Argo” and others get of the hook, while “Selma” receives such deep historical analysis? Why didn’t David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo receive Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Actress?

I think the answer is clear. There is an element of prejudice and racism in the focus on “Selma.” Critics (particularly white liberal critics) are much more defensive of “Selma,” because they feel a personal connection to the event which is not the case with most other films. And they feel hurt and slighted, because they feel lumped together with LBJ as resistant to civil rights progress.

I have never understood why drama and historical accuracy have to be opposed to be one another, but that is the way Hollywood screenwriters, directors, and producers seem to view the matter. That is the reality of these films. Critics, who know this full well, have to be consistent in their critiques. If you criticize historical inaccuracies, then you should do it consistently. Don’t lower the boom on one film, while letting the others slip through the cracks. If you do, be prepared for the return volleys that you will inevitably receive from the other side. This is rightfully so.




Addendum:I keep looking at the thumbnail photo accompanying, and I just can’t it out of my mind how Heschel is air-brushed out. I still find “Selma” a superb film, but this erasure saddens me deeply. So here’s the original photo:


Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2015 Laurence Kant

Suzanna in Neve Tzedek, Tel Aviv



And here’s a 2012 photo from Suzanna, a restaurant in Neve Tzedek, Tel Aviv, the oldest neighborhood in Tel Aviv (southwest part of the city near the Arab city, Jaffa) with Irit Averbuch: Great food as always in Tel Aviv.


Tel Aviv: Eating at Benny HaDayag


Conspicuous food consumption in Tel Aviv. The first pictures are from Benny HaDayag (Benny the Fisherman–בני הדייג) on the Tel Aviv waterfront. I learned a lot of Hebrew names for fish–I don’t even know all their names in English (see the very last picture). Fish is a big deal Israel–and it’s really good, prepared in all sorts of interesting ways–along with all kinds of great salads, eggplant dishes, and other accompaniments. Dianne and I are eating with our good friend, Irit Averbuch, lover of all things Tel Aviv and Japanese.

And here’s the mouth-watering menu: http://www.bennyhadayag.co.il/


Food Labels

Thought for the day: On food and drink labels, whenever you see “dye,” it really means “die.”


Immigrants are the Core of Who We are in the US

I could not agree more with Reverend Wallis.  As the recent dismissal of  Chipotle employees (in Washington, D.C.) demonstrates (because the company was afraid of their legal status), our immigration system is broken. Reverend Wallis is right when he notes that our country would grind to a halt without Latino/a immigrant workers. We would simply not function as a country without them. These are hard-working people with the kind of drive and energy that is at the core of the prosperity and dynamism of the U.S. The xenophobia and fear that characterizes so much of our national discourse on this topic is not only economically and morally harmful to us, but it diverts us from the real problems we face.

Except for Native americans, we are all immigrants, including my grandparents who came to this country from Russia and Poland. The Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”) is one of our greatest symbols, representing the most deeply held values of our people. Let us not react to our anxieties and hatred, but let us live out our dreams and hopes. That is the meaning of every great moral and spiritual tradition.



Gold Mania in the Yukon

This is a wonderfully written story about the mania for gold (and mushrooms) and the adventurous souls that prospect for it in the Yukon in Canada
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/15/magazine/mag-15Gold-t.html (via Nelson French)


Colorful Food Not Always So Nice

Often food that looks good isn’t so good for you. Beware of colors!



NYC Leads the Nation in Promoting Health Food Choices for Schoolchildren

This is inspiring. New York city has introduced a massive healthy food program that will affect children’s food choices not only in NYC, but throughout the country.



The Contentious Quest for Truffles in North Carolina

Trying to grow truffles in the US is an arduous, competitive, and uncertain business.http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/04/us/04truffles.html?hp


Tajii Dolphin Hunt Ends One Month Early in Japan

At least this is one victory and another indication that there is a little space for humaneness in the human heart.  There is also increasing evidence for a growing inventory of unsold dolphin and whale meat in Japan, with Japanese consumers increasingly refusing to buy and eat this meat.


Muffin Wars

The muffin biz is top secret.



Food and Farming Problems in India

India is having serious problems in feeding its own people.  This article touches both on weather changes (global warming) and on modern farming technology.  (via Nelson French)



Genetically Engineered Alfalfa Allowed to Grow Anywhere

For those of us who care about seed integrity, and its relation to human and planetary health, this is not good news.



Food Speculators (Banks) Have Driven Up Commodity Prices, Fueling Hunger and Poverty

This is illuminating.  Bank speculators not only caused the crisis in the US and Europe through dubious housing deals, but they have sparked unrest all over the world, now in Tunisia and Egypt, by artificially ginning up the commodities markets.  Blessings, Larry



Walmart and Healthy Foods

I don’t buy food at Walmart, but Walmart’s recent decision to cut sodium and use whole grains will have a major impact on the broader US food market.  And that’s a good thing.



A Personal View of Kashrut (Kosher)

See Laurence H. Kant, A Personal View of Kashrut,” Opinion, Shalom, September, 2010, p. 11: Kashrut2


A Personal View of Kashrut


Laurence H. Kant
Kosher observance entails many things. Each Jew who considers himself or herself to be “observant” calibrates the areas and degrees of that observance.

There are many theories about kashrut’s origins—anthropological, sociological, moral, health-related. Torah doesn’t offer any explicit reason other than God’s command.  Presumably, there are many factors. I’m more interested, however, in the outcomes of the practice than its origins.

“Keeping kosher” is commonly associated with not eating pork and shellfish, but it was my evangelical Christian naturopath who convinced me to avoid both pigs and shellfish because they have inefficient digestive systems and retain toxins and allergens. I realized that kosher observance may have given Jews an adaptive advantage in terms of well-being and longevity, since our circulatory, neural, lymphatic, and digestive systems are healthier than those of others who eat toxin-filled foods.
There may be health reasons for separating meat and dairy, too. Vegans don’t consume dairy products (along with meat), and there are naturopathic reasons for avoiding dairy, particularly homogenized/pasteurized milk products.  Many naturopaths believe that the process of producing dairy products damages the food, making people less able to absorb nutrients. There’s also a view that eating meat and dairy together makes our bodies less able to break down foods in our digestion than if we ate them separately, clogging our systems and raising cholesterol levels.
Beyond health, there are other reasons for maintaining kosher awareness. For one thing, it makes consumers and eaters more conscious of what they ingest. (My wife has long quipped that “organic” is the New Age “kosher.”)

Keeping kosher is what Jews have always done and are commanded to do. While that’s not enough for me, I originally stopped eating pork in order to maintain my connection to my ancestors and my tradition. I think there’s value in doing so.

There’s another reason that’s difficult for non-Jews to understand. Kosher and Sabbath observance have always distinguished Jews from others. Being different is part of what it means to be Jewish. Jews are, frankly, notoriously contrarian (even enjoying breaking their own rules) and don’t follow the crowd.  The Jewish path is a less traveled one.

This “otherness” gives us a different perspective and allows us to see connections others don’t. It’s what has allowed Jews to help make the world a better place. Look at the Jewish Nobel prizewinners, artists, and humanitarians—well beyond the miniscule percentage of Jews in the population. Sadly, this very habit of life and mind that has advanced the world is what offends non-Jews and makes non-Jews suspicious of us. Despite this, Jews (religious and secular) continue to live distinctively, often without realizing they’re doing so.

I don’t view Judaism as solely a religion, but rather as a way and philosophy of life that has made one people take an “alternate route” for three millennia.  For me, what distinguishes Jews isn’t the obvious, but an array of things that most don’t notice. These include non-religious elements, such as pursuit of learning, challenging authority, taking pleasure in debate, love of good food, and humor. Jews have, and will, adopt the cultural influences around us. One of the distinctive characteristics of Jews has been our capacity to adapt what it means to be Jewish and still remain Jews. We’re protean, able to take on different roles and appearances, but still keep a Jewish perspective and way of life, wherever we go. That’s what continues to make me Jewish—not dietary law, per se.

I value thinking about food and believe that kashrut encourages this. My personal understanding of kashrut isn’t very traditional.  For me, kosher dietary practice means being conscious of food, how it’s grown, raised, and prepared, and where it comes from.  It also includes the humane treatment of animals. Organic practices are a form of kashrut for me, and I consider free-range/non-hormonal chickens more truly kosher than chickens prepared according to rabbinical standards. If I could easily obtain and afford kosher/free range/non-hormonal chickens, I would prefer them.

That’s my highly idiosyncratic understanding of kashrut: it preserves ancient traditions that possess great wisdom, and, together with modern organic foods, it makes sense to me.

Published in Shalom,  September,  2010,  p. 11

© Laurence H. Kant 2010


All About Delicatessens: This Makes Me Hungry



Coca-Cola and Health

This is fun and probably represents the real heath impact of Coke: What happens when you read from right to left.


10 Tragic Moments in Food Propaganda


“From Freedom Fries to Mecca Cola, a slide show of sadly politicized food to embarrass all eaters…”



Integration: Making sense of opposites; living in diverse realms; finding a way to enjoy eating chocolate, garlic, sushi together: ONE


Meals as Holy

The Source is an honored guest at every meal. Show it hospitality by taking pleasure in good food and by eating with gusto (Gen 18).


Company Gardens


“Workplace gardens are a relatively cheap perk that can put healthy snacks on the conference table.”


Reforming the Deli


This article makes me hungry.


Free-Range Chickens and Ethics

This is in response to a group discussion in our congregation on organic foods.


Something positive and good has come out of this discussion of chickens.  We have learned that people are deeply responsive to the issue of meat consumption.  Unlike abortion, stem cells, capital punishment, even war, this topic strikes all of us at a gut, personal level.  We may not all have the unfortunate experience of dealing with a murderer or an unwanted pregnancy, but obviously we all to have to eat on a regular basis.  So this is a dilemma we cannot avoid facing.  And nobody wants to feel like a bad person; we all want to think we’re good, decent, nice people.

Yet, the reality is that we are all–everyone of us–implicated in the cultural activities of the broader society in which we live.  There is no getting around that.  Torah has long explained that every Jew sins not just as an individual, but as part of the greater Jewish and human community.  No matter what we do, we are engaged in activities that are harmful to other beings and to the earth itself.  That’s simply the nature of humanness.  What we should do, I think, is not try to be perfect (that’s plainly impossible), but to try to reduce the harm we do and to transform negative actions into positive ones.

Historically, laws of kashrut slaughtering were much more humane than slaughtering practices found in neighboring cultures.  And part of the motivation (though not all) for these laws probably stemmed from concern for the well-being of animals.  But times have changed, and we live in a different world since the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century.  Like others today, kosher butchers engage in the factory industry of chicken slaughtering (though kosher butchers are more humane than the large corporate industry giants).  It is this assembly-line, industrial system that has caused new, inhumane practices to be adopted by most large slaughtering houses.  Our dilemma is:  Do we pay more for humane slaughtering practices, or do we pay the lowest possible price?  Of course, we all have to make that decision for ourselves, and no one is wrong who decides to pay a lower price.  Every day we make these kinds of decisions in countless, little ways, and I imagine that each one of us comes to different conclusions, depending on the issue.

For me eating free-range chickens means that we are inflicting less pain and suffering on other sentient beings.   We are also forcing poultry producers to adopt more humane and healthy practices. This is tikkun olam.   Do I always do this?  Honestly, no.  Do I try to?  Yes.  Why?  Because it is the right thing to do.  We all do the best we can, knowing that we can still cause harm.  That’s the complexity of our human existence.


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