We must stand up.

We must stand up.

It almost seems unfair to saddle a movie with being a sign of the times. It’s weighing-down the artistic effort with outside influences that are out of the artist’s control, and muddying the discussion with personal politics. It stops being about whether or not the film is good and more about what it says about our world. However, sometimes it’s just unavoidable. By design or dumb luck, a film becomes a microcosm for society today, and becomes a totem for a bigger conversation.

What’s wild is when a sign of the times is a portrayal of times gone by.

SELMA drops the audience into the thick of the Civil Rights movement in America in the early 1960’s. We begin with the image of the 16th Street Baptist Church being blown up, and the four little girls inside being killed. From there, we move to a woman named Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) trying to register to vote, but being strong-armed by unfair voter restrictions designed to keep blacks from engaging in the democratic process. Both sequences serve to remind us that civil rights in America would be a bloody ordeal, and affect many lives in the name of true change.

So when we finally get a glimpse of Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) preparing to receive his Nobel Peace Prize in December of 1964, we understand his humility and reluctance.

Dr. King might have led the Civil Rights movement to spur great change in America, but it came at great cost.

In 1964, it becomes clear that Dr. King won’t get the specific changes the movement wants from President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), attention turns to Selma, Alabama. Selma had become a flashpoint for the lack of black americans’ right to vote, and became a staging ground for the next phase of the movement. As Dr. King and his advisors descend upon Selma, the plan is hatched to march in demonstration from there to the state capital of Montgomery. Unfortunately, state laws make any gathering of three or more people under the sponsorship of civil rights organizations or leaders unlawful. Therefore, every attempt at a peaceful protest is met with police intervention…usually violent police intervention.

Much of the violence comes at the behest of Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), who denounces the march as a threat to public safety. It’s he who turns to Sheriff Jim Clark to stop the march and the demonstrations, and Clark who besets the violence that follows.

As more blood is spilled, and many protestors are tossed in jail, it is constantly put to Dr. King by many around him if what they are doing is right…is “worth it”…is the best option. Between the dissent from the civil rights groups around him, the constant surveillance from the federal authorities, and the tension in his marriage, one might think that it would be Dr. King himself raising these apprehensions.

To the contrary, at every turn, and in the face of every seed of doubt, Dr. King is the one to say that the movement must walk on, and that the movement must stand up.

But at what cost?

 

Martin and Coretta

There’s a lot to say about SELMA, which is an achievement all its own. Considering how much time has passed since the events of this movie, you would think that there wouldn’t be much left to discuss. On the contrary, there is so much beauty and intensity to this movie, we begin to believe that we haven’t discussed enough…or we haven’t discussed it correctly. Between the power of David Oyelowo’s performance, the grace of Carmen Ejogo’s performance, the focus of the plot and the vision that Ava Duvernay brings to it all, one can’t help but feel if we haven’t been discussing the right things in our movies on race in America.

For instance, one fascinating about this movie is the way it checkers the civil rights movement with indecision. We forget sometimes that there’s more than one way to fight for your rights, and not everybody saw things Dr. King’s way. Saying that isn’t just about the divide between the peaceful protests that Dr. King believed in versus the Malcolm X doctorate of “By Any Means Necessary”. Just like any political struggle, there are fractions within one side…clusters who say efforts should be focused elsewhere, and dissenters who believe that leadership is going about things all wrong. Thing is, because the movement was so – please pardon the pun – black and white, nobody ever stops to think that the virtuous side still had infighting.

SELMA allows that infighting a moment at the mic. It allows dissent and shows just that as much as Dr. King has become lionized, his footsteps weren’t unquestionably followed like Moses to The Promised Land.

That sort of portrayal takes balls, and Ava DuVernay should be commended for underlining that level of reluctance. The film never goes so far as to suggest that Dr. King’s leadership was wrong, or even flawed, but it wants to point out that even in a moment where everyone walks behind a common banner, there are still those who want to fly a slightly different banner.

At first blush, what will stay with people are the biggest moments – the speeches, the marches, the violence. However, what really makes this film so special is just how much it says in its quieter moments. It reminds us of the humility a truly great leader comes built with, and does so in a scene where Dr. King pays a visit to Cager Lee – the grandfather of an assassinated black youth. In this moment, the leader is the listener, not interested in making promises or declarations, but wanting to show deepest condolences and respect. Likewise, the film reminds us that our leaders can be flawed human beings, as emblematic in a scene where Coretta Scott King questions her husband about his infidelity.

Putting aside for a moment the very fact that a film about Dr. King would have the guts to even infer the man’s infidelities, we see in this moment what their marriage and their partnership was about. We watch as the betrayed asks the questions, and the betrayer has to listen and speak carefully. It shows us that these two people knew what was at stake, and that they still needed to get things straight to work as one unit. The crazy thing is nowadays, such a situation could decimate the reputation of a leader, let alone their marriage. Getting an inkling of how The King Family would have handled such a situation is truly intriguing.

For me though, the heart of the film lays in one other quiet moment – a moment where Corretta Scott King is unsure if she has the inner courage to face Malcolm X when he unceremoniously shows up in Selma. In that moment, another character tells her that she absolutely has the inner courage. She has it because her ancestors had the courage to bring life into this world; to give it music, love, country, and still endure when some of those very gifts were ripped away. She reminds Coretta the same blood that flowed through the veins of her ancestors, flows through her veins, therefore that courage is in her lineage.

For me this is the key of SELMA – of remembering where we came from, and what our ancestors endured. Every freedom we enjoy, every liberty we take for granted, every opportunity we consider “ours”…someone, somewhere, some time before we were born stood up and fought for that. It’s in us to keep up the fight, and likewise, it’s in us to win as they did.

On its own, SELMA would have punched me square in the chest. But SELMA cannot be consumed on its own – not now, maybe never. It unfolds inside our cinemas in a way that sadly echoes what continues to happen outside our cinemas. It makes us care about innocent people who fought for their civil liberties and shouldn’t have had to die for them, and reminds us of people on the nightly news who had those same civil liberties ignored, and shouldn’t have had to die for their choices. It is a movie that takes the gigantic discussion of race in America and microscopes it down to one specific time and place. In doing that, it becomes a particularly poignant and powerful movie for our time and place.

It is a powerful reminder of who we were, and a sobering reflection of who we still are.

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★
What did you think? Please leave comments with your thoughts and reactions on SELMA.