This past Friday, in spite of no showings of Ava Duvernay’s Selma (2015) being shown in Fort Worth theaters, a friend and I were able to see the film in Grand Prairie. We had to endure being in line where there was only one cashier at the box office, but once we were in the theater, there weren’t even ten other viewers who showed up. Able to choose where I sat, I picked the usual: middle aisle, middle seats. Movie theaters are the only place where I choose “the Middle Way.” After we the audience got through twenty minutes of previews, the actual movie started. Throughout the film, my mind was racing with thoughts, being reminded of the current issues of today and how injustice functions and what role religion plays in society. I told a number of friends I had gone to see the movie, and a few of them requested that I write out my thoughts. So here, without further ado, are five takeaways from my viewing of SELMA. Oh and yes, general Spoiler Alert
1. Selma is an example of exactly what a “Christian” or faith film should look like. In the recent decade, Evangelical Christian culture has struggled to get a presence in Hollywood, offering movies from Fireproof to Courageous to even my favorite of that group One Night With The King. Selma is a film that portrayed both the piety of clergy and lay people not as some awkward conversionism, but something to be embodied and portrayed everyday. When King is in jail, his friends are citing the words of Jesus to calm him down. When King needs to hear the voice of God, he calls Mahalia Jackson to soothe his fear of death. More importantly, Christianity is depicted as more diverse than the run-of-the-mill nondenominational Bible church evangelicalism of the aforementioned films. When King decides to march across the bridge to Montgomery, he is greeted by an Eastern Orthodox priest. An almost perfect picture of ecumenism at work.
2. If it wasn’t for the women, would there be a Civil Rights Movement? Not enough work has been done on the importance of women, especially Black women’s roles during the Civil Rights Movement. We are given the opportunity to empathize with the struggle of Anna Cooper who is denied her basic right to vote. We are given a small glimpse of Diane Nash’s influence in Reverend Dr. King’s inner circle. We see just how essential Coretta Scott King was to MLK’s ministry. Her encounter with Malcolm X was symbolic of the real philosophical differences between Martin’s side and Malcolm’s side.
3. Selma’s representation of debates about how to go about dismantling White Supremacy only scratched the surface. As I mentioned above, Malcolm according to the film Selma, chose to use himself as a foil to Martin, so that MLK could be seen as the “more respectable” of the two. Yet while these disagreements continue to be debated, I don’t think that Malcolm is portrayed as anti-thetical to the cause of Black civil rights. Malcolm’s and Martin’s goal are the same (the eradication of legal Jim Crow racial segregation) and on that front, they have common ground. The other debate, between SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (the SCLC), the typology of the young disgruntled radicals facing up against their more experienced, more powerful elders, rings true in the Internet Age. For what its worth (and I admit, I may be a part of the problem), it seems that many youthful, energetic communities that rely on digital media are playing the trope of SNCC while there is no SCLC really around. What are the ways that contemporary movements for social justice can work against ageism? As I heard someone say before, I don’t wanna be in a revolution that my mother cannot partake.
4. The Social Justice Film Genre Is In Right Now. 12 Years A Slave. Fruitvale Station. The Help. Lee Daniels The Butler. Beasts Of The Southern Wild. You hear about them every year now. Each year, there are those two are three independent films which center around social issues. They are for the most part, well acted. There are cameos by big name celebrities who have invested money in the film (think Oprah Winfrey in Selma, Brad Pitt in 12 Years, for example). These celebrities may even get too much camera time in this author’s opinion. Part of the experience also involves a lot of emotional investment on the part of the audience. There is a general expectation that there will either be tears or anger. It’s no laughing matter to see enslaved Black persons being beaten on the big screen. These social justice films are enjoyable, but I would not say that they are entirely pleasant experiences. We’re not talking about rom-coms here.
5. Historical accuracy can be offensive. A number of white liberals were outraged at the portrayal of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. From what we know, LBJ was a political pragmatist seeking a “third way” to calm down both sides who were “extremists.” There’s a difference between being an extremist for love and justice, and being hate-mongering murderous White supremacists, wouldn’t you agree? LBJ and the Brogressive logic of “both sides as equally bad” is actually a form of linguistic violence, where there is a lack of nuance as well as no understanding of differences between the two parties. Artful truth does damage to the psyche of many within the dominant culture, which would rather believe and live in the fantasy of the happy Negro rather than the real struggles of human being nonviolently revolting for political freedom.
side noteTim Roth’s performance as Governor George Wallace was an Abomination. Props if you get that reference.**
So what do you think? Did I leave out anything about Selma? Are you more likely to go see it?
(Photo Description: Taken March 1965 Alabama civil rights movement: Selma to Montgomery march: Iakovos, Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy (Monday, March 15, 1965)Preferred Citation: Jack Rabin collection on Alabama civil rights and southern activists, 1941-2004 (bulk 1956-1974) , Historical Collections and Labor Archives, Eberly Family Special Collections Library, University Libraries, Pennsylvania State University. Repository: Penn State Special Collections, University Park, PA, Flickr/Creative Commons)