Why You Should See Selma

As is pretty much always the case, there were plenty of buzzworthy movies in 2014. As someone who loves movies and keeps up with reviews and awards and such, this time of year is full of things of interest to me. While I rarely have had the time or inclination to see all of the films that are likely to be nominated for the major awards, I have usually paid enough attention to the buzz to know basically what the big films are about.

With the Golden Globes tomorrow night and the Oscars around the corner, awards season is in full swing and most of the movies generating most of the buzz look very, very familiar: white male coming-of-age, white male genius, white male misunderstood genius, white male antihero, white male historical figure, etc., etc., etc., and other variations thereof. The box office hits paint a slightly different picture, but there are still overwhelmingly white male superheroes and white male action stars and an entire cast of fairy tale characters that are somehow exclusively white.

This is nothing new, or really at all surprising. And I thoroughly enjoyed plenty of those movies – many of them rightly deserve the acclaim and success they have achieved.

But today I saw Selma.

I have attempted about 5 times to write the next sentence of this post, but have been unable to. I do not have the words to describe how I felt watching this movie or how I felt after this movie ended. I think I have a pretty wide vocabulary (I am an English teacher), but I have failed to come up with the adjectives necessary to adequately describe the experience. The best I can do is this: when the movie ended, the thought ringing most loudly through my head was “More. I want more like this.”

In most conversations I have had where Selma has come up, it has been described as “the movie about MLK.” But there is a reason the movie is called Selma and not King. Dr. King is in it and is a central figure, but the story is not about him. It is about a community. It is about a place and time. It is about a movement. It is about what happens not just when “a man stands up and says enough is enough,” but about when an entire group of people does. It is about the forces that limit progress and cast doubt and challenge people’s faith. It is about the difficulty of bringing a group of individuals together to work towards a common goal, and about what can be achieved when those individuals persevere through those difficulties and find a way to bring about change.

Selma puts Dr. King in context in a way that I have never seen before. The movie humanizes him, and it is so striking because it reveals how often he has been deified in previous narratives, particularly narratives crafted by white storytellers, whether that be in popular media or in high school textbooks. By taking Dr. King off the pedestal he is so often placed on and showing him as one among many, it not only makes for a more compelling story, but also elevates all the others around him who were so important to the work of the Civil Rights Movement. I knew the name Ralph Abernathy because he was with Dr. King when he was assassinated in Memphis. But I didn’t know the name Jimmie Lee Jackson or Bayard Rustin or James Orange or Andrew Young or Amelia Boynton or Diane Nash or James Bevel or John Lewis. This movie made me want to take a course on every single one of them.

The movie also made me want to learn more about the SCLC and SNCC and other organizations that are left out of the conversation on the Civil Rights Movement, who worked long and hard at grassroots efforts to build momentum for those larger pieces of legislation that we tend to focus on.

Speaking of legislation, I know there has been criticism of the way President Johnson is depicted in the movie, saying it paints him as more antagonistic than he actually was towards the movement. And maybe that criticism is valid; it’s not something I’m an expert on, so I don’t know. But the criticism reminds me of a post that’s been circulating Tumblr over the past couple of months that talks about the length of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The post points out that we forget how long the Civil Rights Movement took and asserts that it might be because we hate to think that the United States resisted changing. We want to believe that most white people just didn’t know how bad it was, and that when they found out, they immediately worked to fix it.

History paints a different story – one of apathy and indifference, if not outright obstruction, to the movement. And if the makers of Selma chose to use President Johnson as the representative of that reality for the sake of the narrative, I’m ok with that. Honestly, it’s about time. How many historical figures of color have been misrepresented by popular media for the sake of drama? And how many white figures have been polished up and shown in their best light in order to advance a particular narrative? This is a common necessity in storytelling, and as someone with a basic knowledge of American history and a pretty good understanding of how our government functions, the portrayal of President Johnson was not beyond the bounds of belief.

But I don’t want discussions of that one aspect to distract from the bigger picture. Selma is a triumph of filmmaking. The film is exquisite and unflinching and compelling at every moment, as well as extraordinarily prescient considering it was written before Ferguson and the other events of late 2014. Many of the speeches and conversations would not seem wildly anachronistic if they were to occur today. It is beautifully designed and beautifully costumed and beautifully filmed and beautifully acted (as big of a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch as I am, and as much as I enjoyed his portrayal of Alan Turing, if David Oyelowo does not win all the awards, it will be a travesty. Director Ava DuVernay also deserves all the awards).

Selma is without a doubt worth your time and the price of admission.

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  • A collection of ramblings and musings on Jesus, life, education, family, and anything else that pops into my head.

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