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Sometimes collective history and individual biography merge to create unique moments and opportunities. (photo of Oprah Winfrey in one of her most dramatic acting roles as Annie Lee Cooper in the movie Selma provided by and Paramount Pictures)

For me, the movie Selma provided 3 very important opportunities. The first was to celebrate the fact that the extraordinary story of the people of Selma, Alabama, had received “big-screen movie treatment” with director Ava DuVernay, producers Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt, and a cast of some of the most gifted actors working today, including David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr., at the helm.

The second important opportunity was a chance to write about the movie’s potential impact on present-day campaigns to secure various gains won in the past but clearly placed at risk in the present. Due to the nature of the subject, I knew the planned article would require at least a 2-part installment. However, a trip to Selma in 2009 to participate in the annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee had inspired an essay previously published on the now defunct Redroom website for authors and readers. It made a perfect addition to the new article under the subtitle A Writer’s Journey to Selma 2009, and extended the article into a 5-part series:

In addition to forming an important part of the new article, A Writer’s Journey to Selma stands as a significant essay in its own right for the first-hand account it provides of a community laboring to preserve the story of its formidable contributions to history, and to share its determination to make even greater investments in the future.

Acclaim & Controversy

At the same time that it has won acclaim for its unflinching examination of racism in 1965, the superb performance of its starring actors, and the stirring excellence of musicians John Legend’s and Common’s Golden Globe Award-winning theme song, the movie Selma has also drawn pointed criticism. According to some, the depiction of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s association with President Lyndon B. Johnson over-exaggerates any negative tension that may have existed between them.  Moreover, some critics maintain, it likewise diminishes whatever positive camaraderie they may have shared as two leaders attempting to shape the chaotic violence of an era into a cohesive vision of functional democracy.    

So what should those who have seen the film or who are considering going to see it make of such a criticism? The answer is more simple than complex, and it bears keeping two observations in mind:

     1) Director Ava DuVernay’s Selma––like director Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln–– is a feature movie informed by historical events, not a filmed real-time documentary of those events.

     2) What we refer to as “known history” is not a single-faceted conclusive representation of reality. It is an interpretation that lends itself as a tool for contemplating that which no longer immediately defines the contours of our lives or the agencies of our deaths.

These statements do not reduce the value of the film any more than the 50 years that have passed since 1965 have reduced the need to continue correcting the political, social, and economic conditions portrayed in Selma.

For the record, DuVernay has summed up her portrayal of King’s and Johnson’s relationship several times on various talk shows, putting it as follows on the CBS Morning Show:

“What I try to do is show the full arc of their relationship. Neither man was a saint. Neither man was all sinner. There were gray areas to their relationship. They had one of the most productive relationships in history but it was sometimes a rocky road to get there… We try to show the complexity of the humanity within the relationship.”

For students of history and human nature, or for those all over the world simply curious about the qualities of courage and focused determination that it took to wage battle against the debilitating racism that characterized the United States in 1965, the movie remains an invaluable resource as well as inspiring entertainment. It allows those struggling against the suppression of human and civil rights today to learn important lessons about the leadership struggles and strategies that eventually brought significant progressive changes to American society. It also allows the honored survivors of that struggle 50 years ago to stand in solidarity with those who have taken up their songs and banners and legacy in 2015.



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Reviewed by Ronald Hull 1/20/2015
I'll confess that I've not read your five-part essay, so I will focus on your summation of the movie. Yes, in spite of the screenwriters and director's knowledge of events and the actors' understanding of the character of those they are playing, a movie is a movie, largely made for entertainment and to make money. Certain historical events may be altered in order to provide drama the way that audiences expect.

One example I might note of the conflict of the time is our own Uriah J. Fields here in AD. Uriah had a falling out with King and others in the Montgomery Improvement Association and was in California by the time the Selma march took place. His writings on his website provide a good history of the entire civil rights movement.

I was involved in church groups at the time and attended an intensive conference in Madison Wisconsin where we were taught nonviolent techniques by black university students and my brother and I stayed in a black family's home. I fell short of involvement by not joining the Freedom Riders, although I could have. I did participate in the boycott of the local college hangout that refused to serve black football players from our college.

At the Quadrennial Conference of the Methodist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska on December 31, 1964, I was privileged to listen to an address to 2000 people by Martin Luther King, Jr. as I sat in the balcony not 50 feet away. It was a transforming speech that had me willing to die alongside of him for the cause. During that conference, the Mississippi delegation, all white, was faced with the confrontation of their beliefs over what was the right thing to do. To this day, many people from the central Wisconsin area that I come from still consider black people to be unsuitable as fellow citizens of this great country. It is truly unfortunate, that while much as changed, some things remain the same.

I was in an Atlanta bookstore, in 1979, when MLK's son, Martin Luther King III, a freshman, was buying books with his grandfather, Daddy King. I stayed back and listened while other students clamored for autographs. The old man said, "charge it," to the clerk, and the clerk refused to accept his request. Daddy King was known for charging things without paying for them.

The young Martin became worried and said, "Grampa, we must go, the car is running outside waiting for us." With that, they left the shop. I'm not sure if the young man got his books or not. Just one of the little dramas that characterize public figures' lives. It becomes part of history.


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