I had the chance to watch Selma over the weekend. It’s a powerful film that has aroused controversy over its depiction of the events surrounding the Selma marches. There has been an outcry over its depiction of conflict between LBJ and MLK. As the first attempt at a biopic of MLK (itself something of a shock given his iconic status in 21st-century America), it may open the door for other cinematic treatments of him and the Civil Rights movement. Given that Hollywood’s focus i such films is too often on the “white savior,” telling the story from an African-American perspective is important.
In addition to the strong performances and breathtaking photography, I was moved by the powerful resonances between Selma and our own day. It was eerie, given the GOP’s relentless attacks on voting rights, to watch as African-Americans fought for the right to vote. The tactics may have changed but the effort to disenfranchise is as strong as ever. In addition, events over the last year, from Ferguson to Eric Garner, continue to show that even with civil rights, African-Americans are treated differently by the justice system and their lives mean little to political and economic elites.
There’s still something shocking about the overt racism and violence depicted in the film. While watching, it’s easy to demonize George Wallace and Jim Clark and others who opposed the efforts to end segregation and gain voting rights. Such outward displays of racism have become anathema in our culture. Still, racism is insidious, the challenges African-Americans face in our society are as great as ever, and we need to face the reality that we are as far from a color-blind society and achieving King’s dream today as we were fifty years ago.
A fairly nuanced look at the historical debate surrounding the film (it distorts the relationship between MLK and LBJ) from the New York Times.
And “Selma” does more than bring history to life, it enlightens our understanding of our lives today. It proves the efficacy of nonviolent action and civic engagement, especially when government seems unresponsive. With poignant grace, it demonstrates that Occupy, inconvenient protests and die-ins that disturb our daily routine reflect a legacy of resistance that led many to struggle and die for justice, not centuries ago, but in our lifetimes. It reminds us that the day could be approaching when that price will be required again.
But now this movie is being weighed down with a responsibility it cannot possibly bear. It’s portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s role in the Selma marches has been called into question. And yet one two-hour movie cannot tell all the stories encompassed in three years of history — the true scope of the Selma campaign. It does not portray every element of my story, Bloody Sunday, or even the life of Martin Luther King Jr. We do not demand completeness of other historical dramas, so why is it required of this film?
My former professor Harvey Cox was interviewed about his friendship with MLK. Harvey used to talk about his participation in the Selma marches in class (including photographs) but there’s a great deal in this interview I had never heard before.
Peter Dreier writes about Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who is not portrayed in the film, but was at Selma, made important contributions to the Civil Rights movement, and was an important interpreter of Judaism to Christian America in the decades after World War II.