By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine
Filmmaker Martin Doblmeier finally is ready to hit the road later this year, assuming pandemic restrictions subside, with a transformative project that has taken him many years to complete. And, rest assured, he also is making plans for adapting to any restrictions—including virtual events he offers to host (details about that are below).
“Finally, we are ready to start organizing showings and talks with people across the country about a question that so many of us are asking these days: How can we raise up the prophetic voices we need right now in this country?” Doblmeier said in an interview this week, marking the national release of his fourth and final documentary in his series on American’s great spiritual and social sages. “I like to describe these four films as Prophetic Voices of the 20th Century and, with the release of the Heschel film (in May 2021), we’re now ready to invite people to experience the entire series.”
The series is:
- The newly released Spiritual Audacity: The Abraham Joshua Heschel Story. Here is the gateway page to this film’s many resources on the Journey Films website.
- Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story. Here is the Journey resource page.
- Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story. Here’s the resource page.
- And, An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story. Here’s that resource page.
See the Heschel Preview
The most important news about the Heschel film is summarized in a 3-minute preview of this new film. In the video frame, you will see a link to “buy” the film, which is one option. But, starting in May 2021, the film also will be showing free of charge via public TV stations.
Q: Why should you see and share this film?
A: Because each week brings fresh headlines about extremist political efforts to suppress the rights of minorities, oppose immigration and spread fear about racial, ethnic and gender diversity across America. Of course, there also are millions of Americans celebrating diversity and working toward peace and hospitality. This is an ideal time to organize inspiring programs to promote civil conversation.
Here is how our Faith & Film writer Ed McNulty summarizes the importance of both Heschel and this film:
Thanks to Martin Doblmeir’s PBS documentary Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel will become a better known figure to millions of viewers. Now available on DVD and streaming, this is a worthy addition to his other filmed biographies of great thinkers and movers—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Reinhold Niebuhr, all brave thinkers who have had a deep impact upon the modern world.
The film’s title is taken from a telegram the rabbi sent to President Kennedy in response to the President’s call for a national conference on race and religion. However, Heschel knew that the Kennedy was not really interested in a concerted effort of the federal government to mount an attack on racism. Instead, the conference was intended to ward off A. Philip Randolph’s planned march on Washington in 1963. Such a March would have been politically embarrassing and would force him to take action that would hurt him at the polls in the South in the 1964 elections. Instead of agreeing with Kennedy, Heschel, according to his daughter Susannah, sought to bring the President fully into the struggle for equal rights, “I propose that you, Mr. President, declare a state of moral emergency. The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”
It did indeed, and Rabbi Heschel himself was prepared fully to plunge himself into the struggle, later marching by the side of his friend Dr. King at the Selma Bridge in 1965.
Want to read Ed’s entire review? It’s right here.
Q: Why should you start with the Heschel film?
A: Because this film begins with a powerful reminder of how Heschel, among many other American clergy, risked their lives to stand up for racial justice during the most dangerous days of the Civil Rights movement. Today, once again, weekly headlines describe political efforts in a number of states to limit peaceful protests. Of course, millions of good-hearted Americans oppose such extremist campaigns, but new restrictions on civil rights are likely to pile up in a number of Southern states.
Among the four Journey films about American prophets, the Heschel film is the perfect first choice for discussions of these issues in coming months.
“In keeping with the central theme here, it’s ‘prophetic’ how you devote the first quarter of this Heschel film to his daring decision to march with Dr. King,” I told the filmmaker in our interview. “You could have started your Heschel film with his childhood, or with his interfaith work, or with his anti-Vietnam activism, or his support of aiding Soviet Jews—there are so many important chapters in his life. You deliberately chose to start the film with Dr. King’s three Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965—and Heschel’s decision after the first two marches to defy warnings from Jewish friends and colleagues. He marched with King and John Lewis in the front line leading the thousands of protesters on March 21, 1965. That’s a powerful way to open this film.”
“Thank you for pointing that out to your readers, because as a filmmaker that’s certainly what I was thinking,” Martin said. “I felt strongly that this was the best entry point to illustrate Heschel’s engagement with the world—and how civil rights was a natural part of that prophetic work. So, in that opening sequence, we put him right there in the front line shoulder to shoulder with King and others. This is a great way to get people talking about the need for all of us to become allies in facing so many challenges we are encountering today.”
Q: How can you start the conversation?
A: Martin Doblmeier and his team have developed extensive resources, ranging from photographs and video clips to suggestions for further reading—and even a series of complete discussion guides on seven different themes you may want to explore, all based on Heschel’s life.
Here is the link to the Heschel discussion guide index at Journey Films. The seven available themes are:
- God in search of man
- The Prophets
- Repairing the world
- No religion is an island
- The Vietnam War
- The Jewish tradition
- The Sabbath
“Please do explain to your readers that our discussion guides are always a work in progress and we encourage people to contact us if they see ways we can add to these offerings,” Martin said. “We’ve followed that process for many years. We want people to make suggestions. So, please, invite people to write to us or call us or email us with suggestions.”
To mail: 1413 King Street, Alexandria, Virginia 22314. Or call: 1-800-486-1070. Email: [email protected]
“Also, let people know that I’ve already done a whole series of virtual programs about this film—and the others in this series—and I’m eager to keep doing programs across the country, especially as pandemic restrictions are lifted this fall and winter. Contact us if your group is interested in an event.”