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Riveting and Inspiring

‘Selma’ wisely depicts struggle for civil rights

Darleen Ortega | 1/13/2015, 4:04 p.m.
What a treat, then, to watch “Selma”—and by a treat, I mean that I was riveted and inspired, and that ...
David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King in ‘Selma,’ the major motion picture that just opened in Portland theaters and across the country. The movie is poised to become of the most critically and popularly lauded films of the year.

The result is a film that is uncommonly wise. Though it cannot tell all their stories, it recognizes people around Dr. King who contributed to the movement’s shape and strategy (Ralph Abernathy, Diane Nash, James Bevel, Hosea Williams, Andrew Young, John Lewis, Amelia Boynton Robinson) or who laid down their lives or suffered serious injuries in the struggle (Lewis, Robinson, Jimmie Lee Jackson). And in depicting scenes of violence (the bombing of the Birmingham church where four schoolgirls were killed, the unprovoked and brutal violence against black protestors on Bloody Sunday), DuVernay evokes the experiences of scores of individual citizens who sacrificed their bodies and sometimes their lives, all without recognition or reward. She helps you recognize the fear and trauma that these people, their ancestors, and their descendents carry in their bodies. This is their story.

Though the film is not strictly about Dr. King, it depicts him, too, as a flesh-and-blood man gifted with uncommon courage and anointed with the power to inspire, but also as a man whose burdens were too heavy, who was too often away from his family, and who sometimes failed those close to him. The film helps you recognize how remarkable it was for any man, and particularly one so young, to shoulder the weight of responsibility that Dr. King carried, and the burden of that anointing. And by opening with his Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and moving directly into scenes of life-and-death struggle in Alabama that occurred in the three months that followed, the film captures how the life of a great leader is likely to be filled with moments of applause and peril, sometimes in the same week, and how each victory often comes with renewed struggle.

The controversy that has arisen about the film’s historical accuracy reveals some things about the difficulty of telling stories like the ones depicted here. President Johnson’s top domestic aide, Joseph Califano, urged people in a December Washington Post op-ed to boycott the film because it failed to give President Johnson due credit for supporting and even devising the protests in Selma which led to passage of the Voting Rights Act. For the truth, he said, people should read Califano’s own reports. A number of other critics and commentators, even while admiring other aspects of the film, have fallen into line with the view that the film unfairly shorts President Johnson of credit for the strategy employed by Dr. King and other black leaders in Alabama.

I feel like I saw a different film than these critics did. The picture that emerged for me was that Johnson wanted legislation on voting rights, but didn’t think it could be accomplished as quickly as black leaders wanted and was intent on pursuing his Great Society programs first. To suggest that Johnson was the architect of the high-risk, non-violent resistance that ended up being necessary to arouse the momentum for such legislation, especially given that the participants received no federal protection and that the racially-motivated violence against them went entirely without redress, makes no sense and is troubling in ways that Califano and others don’t even appear to notice. At the very least, when a powerful person who is part of the dominant culture demands that only he gets to tell the story, how can we trust the truth of the story he tells? The truth is generally a lot messier, and getting at it always requires making space for more voices.