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As the Academy awards approach, Selma, the movie directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Paul Webb and Ava DuVernay is a worthy topic of conversation across the country, and given the prominent place of Archbishop Iakovos in the event that is its focus, in the Greek-American community. The following article offers some perspective.

The lessons of history reveal that the most profound and perennial change comes from within. Such was the case centuries ago, decades ago, and remains the case today.


The end of slavery in United States – a practice that originated on this land long before it was even known as the United States – did not come to an end because of a slave revolt. Rather, the change can from within: from the very seat of power itself, Washington DC, in the form of the Emancipation Proclamation, America’s most famous executive order. Issued by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, the Emancipation encouraged America’s slaves, mostly in the South, which had recently seceded and formed the Confederate States of America, to abandon their masters’ plantations and fight for the North. Their abandoning the fields thwarted the South’s lucrative cotton production: to put it in context, cotton was as important to the South’s military machine as oil is to al-Qaeda’s and ISIS’ nowadays.

The slaves’ rebellion, inspired by Pres. Lincoln’s Emancipation, paved the way for change. Ultimately, the oppressed needed to be in the thick of the battle. But it was change from within – from the ruling class itself – that gave it its roots.

Despised at the time by many in the South and far more in the North than people realize (the latter, because of all the blood spilt in the Civil War), Lincoln eventually received far higher marks over time – history tends to do that – and is now widely regarded as America’s greatest president, and hardly ever falls short of the top three. But he paid a price for his heroism: two years after the Emancipation, in 1865, he was assassinated.


Exactly 100 years later, in 1965, another American transformer of grand proportions, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – who would also pay for his sweeping reforms by losing his life shortly thereafter – continued what Lincoln started a century earlier, risking his own life to ensure voting rights for African-Americans (then typically referred to as “Negroes”) in Alabama and, by extension, across the entire South and throughout the country. King’s goal was to establish a peaceful protest march in Alabama, from Selma to the capital, Montgomery, to draw enough attention to the oppression of black voters so as to encourage Washington to pass federal legislation that would supersede the authority of Governor George Wallace and other Alabama officials.

But the march faced a major setback. In its first attempt, on March 7, Alabama state troopers thwarted the marchers’ attempts, unleashing a violent barrage that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” It was at that point that Dr. King employed the strategy of effectuating change from within. He contacted some people around the United States. White people, but they were his brothers. Not only as members of the same human race, but in this particular situation, men of the cloth, like himself. He called upon his fellow servants of God, the clergy, to join the march. And many answered the call, but the most prominent one of all was the Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church here in America, Iakovos.


Because of his preeminent role in his religion, and perhaps because of his formidable presence dressed in his Archbishop attire, Iakovos stood in the front line, by King’s side, for the next march, on March 7. The march became known as “Turnaround Tuesday,” because King decided not to violate a court restraining order against completing the march. Nonetheless, the Alabama State Troopers did not attack the marchers as they had done two days earlier, presumably because of the interspersing of whites in the crowd, particularly clergy, and particularly Iakovos in the front row.

It would have seemed particularly brutal if the troopers physically beat Iakovos, a man in then his mid-50s, whose graying beard made him look older, who was dressed in full religious garb.

“With the imposing robes he wore, his stature, and the high rank he carried in the Church, it would have been unthinkable for the State Troopers to attack him or the marchers that day,” said Michael Shikany, who portrayed Iakovos in the 2014 film Selma, which has been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. “But he didn’t know that. He showed amazing courage to be there,” Shikany told TNH.


As Tina Fey, the Greek-American Emcee of the Golden Globe Awards, poignantly quipped about Selma at that ceremony earlier this month, “it was about the civil rights movement that totally worked and now everything’s fine.” Fey’s sarcastic commentary drew appreciative applause, as it was evident she was referring to race-based conflicts that continue to fester in some pockets of America, particularly over the past few months following the deaths of two unarmed African-American males at the hands of police officers in Ferguson, MO and Staten Island, both of which resulted in grand jury acquittals of the officers in question.

Selma was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Original Song at the Golden Globes, and only won the last one (the song is “Glory” by John Legend and Common – the latter also played civil rights leader James Bevel in the film).

The Academy Awards, however, to be decided on February 22, nominated Selma in only two categories – Best Picture and Best Original Song – prompting contemporary civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton to call for an “emergency meeting” to address what he deemed a racist snub of the film. But Shikany told TNH he does not believe race was a factor.

“Of course I wanted David Oyelowo (who played King) and Ava [DuVernay – the director] to be nominated,” he said. “But realistically, the competition this year was incredible. There were many great movies and performances. Sad to say, I think racism in this country is only marginally improved over what it was in 1965, just not as explicit. But I don’t think it had to do with this year’s nominations.”

In fact, just last year, the Academy awarded the Best Picture Oscar to 12 Years a Slave, produced by Greek-American Anthony Katagas, a historical film about a free-born African-American man who was sold into Slavery.

Shikany, who is of Lebanese descent, was born and raised in Atlanta, GA. “Growing up we lived in a typically diverse ethnic neighborhood,” he told TNH. “There were Greeks, Italians, Lebanese, and Jews living in our neighborhood. My grandparents all came from a small town in Lebanon called Zahle. As I said, I am not Greek but, for most of my life, I belonged to St. John Chrysostom Greek Catholic (Melkite) Church and was their cantor for many years, and am very familiar with the Greek Orthodox Church. We celebrate the same Liturgy. Our Clergy wear the same vestments and robes.”

But it was not until his agent approached him to play the role of Iakovos, that Shikany first learned about the transformational archbishop. “Ironically, my agent thought his name was Lakovos,” he said. “When I was researching him, I found out how important and very popular he was (and the correct spelling and pronunciation of his name). I looked him up on YouTube and Wikipedia to hear a couple of his speeches and learn his history and background. My main concern at that point was to look and sound like him.”

And then, it was all about auditioning for the part. “My agent sent me on the audition. I went to a costume shop and bought the robe and headwear. I had been actually been awarded a medal from our Patriarch for my Church service that I wore around my neck. I looked relatively authentic (for such short notice). I did not hear back from the audition for quite a long time and then just a day or two before they shot my scenes, they called me in. I looked so much like him and I got the accent down pretty well. He actually did not have that much of an accent.”

In the film, King (Oyelovo) approaches Iakovos and embraces him. “You came!” King proclaims joyfully. “You called, my friend, and I came,” answers Iakovos, as portrayed by Shikany. Another scene, with King and Iakovos at King’s house, was deleted from the final cut, Shikany said. “The accent would have been much more important if they had left [that scene] in.

It is evident that Shikany did far more than learn to imitate Iakovos’ accent – he learned a great deal about the man, and appreciates it. “I have come to respect him for what he did not only in Selma but for other stances he took,” he said. “How was it that no Greek hierarchy met with the Pope for 350 years until Iakovos did so? His stance on internal political issues may have accelerated his retirement. Those are two instances of where he was trying to overcome barriers and bring people together. Obviously, he was a great man and visionary.

“I know that my Greek friends and associates are very excited to see Iakovos in the movie and getting such great notice. I hope my portrayal did him proud.”



The post Selma Portrays Iakovos as Agent of Change from Within appeared first on The National Herald.

Source: The National Herald
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