I was shaking and crying when I came out of a movie screening of Selma the other night.
I knew there was a good chance I would be: the film recounts the 1965 march from Selma to Birmingham, Alabama in support of equal voting rights—a non-violent movement that was met with bloodshed and hate.
But I wasn’t prepared for the artistry, undisguised violence, and narrative nuance that director Ava DuVernay brings to the story, or for the powerful but very human depiction that David Oyelowo gives of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The film opens with King, feeling uncomfortable in fancy dress, as he’s about to accept the Nobel Peace Prize at a lavish ceremony in Norway. It’s an intentionally stark contrast to the realities of racial segregation back in the U.S., particularly in the southern states.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 technically outlawed racial segregation. But in actuality, African Americans were often denied the vote by local and state authorities, and horrific acts of terrorism were committed in the name of white supremacy. Selma depicts how the struggles of a small town became the focus of national level policy dialogue, notably between King and President Lyndon B. Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson).
A number of reviewers have criticized DuVernay’s portrayal of Johnson as an opponent to King, instead of as a staunch ally in the fight for civil rights.
Frankly, I don’t think it’s fair to require a director to cram every possible point of view into a two-hour movie, while simultaneously providing a coherent and entertaining narrative. I expect better than blatant inaccuracies—and in one history teacher’s opinion, there are none in Selma—but I don’t expect the entire history of civil rights, or a complete account of Johnson’s record on the issue. The film is explicitly focused on the events in Selma, and from King’s perspective—this was DuVernay’s creative decision to make.
Besides, by any measure the film does give due representation to the many different individuals and groups that participated in the march. We meet real and influential black women and men, as well as white women and men, and different communities of faith.
King himself is shown as a flawed character, prone to doubt and irritation, and relying heavily on his wife (Coretta Scott King, played by Carmen Ejogo) and other civil rights activists for guidance. DuVernay reminds us that the path to civil rights was not an obvious one. Should violent or non-violent protests be used? Should voting rights, or better jobs, or access to education be prioritized? Activists are divided not only by these impossible choices, but also by their pride and sense of ownership over the movement.
I was also impressed by the film’s attention to the role of journalists in eliciting political change. TV coverage of the Alabama state troopers’ brutality against the peaceful protesters was vital in recruiting supporters and building momentum for federal legislation.
Which brings us back to the importance of films like Selma today. Fifty years after the Selma march and the Voting Rights Act, in the context of discriminatory voter I.D. laws in several states and #BlackLivesMatter, it’s more important than ever to see this film. Selma puts a face to the historic name of King, and to the constant struggle we all very clearly still facing as a country in 2015. The movie puts white viewers face to face with their own privilege, and it shares how all Americans can stand up and take action.
Forget the Oscars nominations that haven’t materialized for Selma—we can still express our support by purchasing movie tickets. (Although, let’s be honest—the Academy Awards should really sort out the pathetically low level of diversity among its voting members). And we should publicly thank the Selma for Students initiative, which is providing thousands of free tickets for middle and high school students across the country.
I don’t know how else to put it: go see this movie.
Katherine Manchester is an international development professional, with roots in Maine and Tanzania. She has written about issues of environmental sustainability and gender. For fun, she enjoys reading and messing around in sailboats.