This year will mark the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, the much lesser-known, but no less significant moment during the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s. Many folks are more familiar with the events in Montgomery and Birmingham: bus boycotts and sit-ins, freedom rides, Ku Klux Klan church bombings, and the violent retaliation of Bull Connor’s attack dogs and fire hoses.
That Selma is generally unknown is perhaps one reason why this year’s beautiful biographical film, Selma, uses the civil rights demonstrations of that city (rather than Birmingham) as the lens through which the filmmakers present Dr King’s life and work. And then there are the significant parallels between Selma 1965 and race relations in the US today. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which President Johnson was compelled to sign in response to the efforts in Selma, was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, causing a ripple effect of voter restriction legislation. While these new laws might not be primarily motivated by racial prejudice, they disproportionally affect people of color, and the white legislators enacting these restrictions know it. In 2014, several racially-charged deaths, riots, rebellions, and protests — all too fresh in our collective consciousness — are leading many to refer to the present as the Second Civil Rights Movement. The reasons I think Selma, Alabama was chosen for the setting of a film in 2015 about civil rights are also why I have been urging folks to go see it.
Selma has not done particularly well at the box office. Compared to turnout for last summer’s The Butler, also a biopic that looks at black Americans’ struggle for civil rights, you’d think Selma was a small indie film only showing in those artsy theaters in major cities. And while The Butler has its merits, Selma is by far the better film.
Here are 3 reasons I think Selma is a must-see.
Selma is gorgeous. It is beautifully shot and directed. It’s a film that evokes strong feelings in its audience, and a lot of that work is done by the frame and movement of the camera. Selma has a very personal feel. Part of its goal is to present the people involved in Selma as deeply human; so, that it feels personal is apt. The framing is tight throughout the film, often zoomed in on the faces of those whose lives we’re being let into. At times, I felt as though I were looking directly into the characters’ eyes, like I was there, in the room with them. This is what good Art does: puts us in a place we’ve never been. And engrosses us. Selma‘s movement and pacing keeps you so engaged, you walk out of the theater surprised that it’s been over 2 hours since you walked in.
I’ve already talked about how the events of Selma are less known to the general public than are other moments during the Civil Rights Era. That alone is a good reason to see this film. More significantly, Selma offers a relatively complex and nuanced picture of the movement and its players, including King himself. The film highlights the stories of several women involved in a movement that suffered the sexism of its day — women from various walks of life, from Coretta King and Diane Nash to Viola Liuzzo and Annie Lee Cooper. The movie shows the contention between King’s SCLC and the younger, more grassroots SNCC, while also revealing the rarely recognized ideological similarities between MLK and post-Hajj Malcolm X. Perhaps most notably, David Oyelowo masterfully portrays Dr King as both tragically and beautifully human: the man we’ve forgotten amid the fog of myth we’ve created. It’s still just a movie. It isn’t a scholarly monograph or even a PBS documentary series. So it isn’t as complex or nuanced as actual history. Director Ava DuVernay takes certain (small) liberties with timelines so that we are able, in a short span, to feel what those at Selma felt. But (again) that’s what good movies do.
3. Show, Don’t Tell
A good film doesn’t use overt dialogue or thinly-veiled symbolism to tell us the moral of the story. It shows its arguments in more subtle ways. To demonstrate how Selma does this, I’ll use a few examples of things I didn’t even notice until I watched the movie a second time. (Side note: good Art rewards multiple viewings.) Annie Lee Cooper is working in a hospital when she sees LBJ enact the Voting Rights legislation, not at the funeral home where she was working at the beginning of the movie trying to register. There is a Gandhi statue in the Kings’ living room, a nod to King’s interfaith journey toward nonviolence. When cutting to various scenes of those throughout the nation watching the violence of Bloody Sunday on TV, one of those scenes is a barbershop in Watts, California, pointing to the struggle beyond Alabama and ‘‘the beginning of a stirring of those people in our society who have been bypassed by the progress of the past decade’’ (MLK on the Watts rebellion, accurately predicting the 125 other “race riots” all across the country in 1967). I love this about the film: it shows us without telling us — Cooper was fired from her job for trying to register to vote; Gandhi was a significant influence on King’s journey toward choosing the path of nonviolence; Watts and Selma were directly related in certain ways and can’t be neatly divided into violent and non-violent, wrong and right.
Davidson, Bruce. Young Protesters in the March from Selma to Montgomery, 1965.
As you can see, Selma has quite a lot going for it — and I’ve only scratched the surface here. It really is surprising just how few people have turned out to see this incredible film, even after a holiday weekend devoted to the film’s key figure. Some of Selma‘s box office woes might be the result of the unjust bashings it received before even opening, most of which revolves around the portrayal of President Lyndon B Johnson (who, ironically, is portrayed in a significantly better light in Selma than he is in Lee Daniel’s film). You can read about why these complaints are misguided here. But “controversy” alone cannot explain the movie’s poor box office showing. I have a collage of rather educated guesses as to why Selma is being avoided, but my hope is that those of you reading this post will prove me wrong, or even prove me right, and go see it anyway.