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.