On August 9th 2014, an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a member of his police force in Ferguson, Missouri. Amidst conflicting reports on what exactly happened, and why, the people of Ferguson cried out in fury and desperation.
The world shook a little bit, and a desperate plea for justice and mercy, “Black lives matter,” echoed through living rooms and Facebook feeds. But Brown’s death wasn’t the last or the latest to evoke this cry. And he certainly wasn’t the first. The Christmas after Brown’s death, Ava DuVernay’s (A Wrinkle in Time) Selma released in theatres and introduced us to Jimmie Lee Jackson, who also died at the hands of white police fifty years earlier. His death provided even more fuel to a dynamic protest movement fighting for voting rights in the south, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
What makes Selma so powerful, right off the bat, is that it isn’t a biopic of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr; it only spans a few months of his life as he prepared to stage one of the most historic protest marches in history. But in zooming in on one moment, director DuVernay and writer Paul Webb really force us to live in the trial by fire that was the American South in 1965.
It’s one thing to read about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. It’s another to listen to the innocent gossip of four little black girls as they walk down the stairs, only to have the screen explode in fire and dust and smoke.
It’s one thing to know that Dr. King spent time in jail, and even wrote many famous sermons there. It’s another to hear the despair in his voice as he speaks to his wife through the bars of a cell in the darkness, wondering if he’s even making a difference.
The movie sparked a feeling inside me that went beyond empathy or compassion. It was a haunting familiarity. It’s enraging, because it’s still the world we live in, in many ways. The Ku Klux Klan still exists. Men, women, and children are still victimized for the color of their skin. The government and law enforcement still struggle with how to respond to and care for a black population that went from enslaved, to disenfranchised, to free citizens - all within a handful of generations.
I have to remind myself that nothing happens overnight, that not enough time has passed for age-old customs of hate and prejudice to die away. But as someone privileged to grow up with friends of many colors, in circles filled with love and acceptance, it infuriates me all the same.
When you watch Selma, you’re sure to be struck by the larger-than-life characters, the powerful story, and the moving music. You don’t need me to tell you about the grave and continuing importance of Annie Lee Cooper (portrayed by Oprah Winfrey, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, The Color Purple), who never stopped fighting for her right to vote. You don’t need me to praise the performances or the themes of freedom and sacrifice. You can see all of that without my input.
So I’ll just say: watch and listen closely, for the strength of this film runs much deeper than those elements.
Listen to the majestic orations delivered by David Olyelowo (Interstellar, A Most Violent Year) as Dr. King. The legal rights to King’s original speeches are owned by Steven Spielberg, so the ones in Selma were masterfully written by DuVernay to mimic the style and content of the originals.
Notice the subtlety with which Coretta (Carmen Ejogo, Alex Cross, Away We Go) and Dr. King’s personal life is framed by the filmmakers. We are given painful glimpses of the lowest moments of his character, her fear and resilience, and hints of how hard it is to be a world-changer and keep a family together.
Don’t just listen to the music of Academy Award winning song “Glory” as it underscores the credits. Listen to the words sung by Common (Suicide Squad) and John Legend, like: “‘Justice for all’ just ain’t specific enough.”
Hear the despair in Dr. King’s arguments with his colleagues about which battle is most pressing in on the Civil Rights front. The black man sitting at the sandwich shop bar? It’s doesn’t matter, because he can’t afford the sandwich. He never learned to read anyway.
“We take it piece by piece,” explains Dr. King. “We build the path as we can.”
The U.S. is still building. How far have we come since Selma? How much farther do we have to go?