Selma Tells The Sad, Powerful Truth

selma

The very first scene in Selma is Martin Luther King Jr and Coretta Scott King in Stockholm for Dr. King to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. As they dress, the couple talks about how things will be once everything has settled down: the Kings dream about running a small church, with Martin teaching occasionally at a university. It sounds like a nice, simple, comfortable life. Of course, it’s heartbreaking to listen to, knowing that King would be dead only a few years later. It’s even more heartbreaking when you consider that, had King not been assassinated, he probably never would have been able to live that quiet, secluded life. Had King lived even until the present day, he probably still would have been just as active and vocal, fighting to right the same wrongs he did back in the 1960s, wrongs that are sadly still all too common in 2014. That sort of relevancy might grant Selma some additional impact but even if 2014 had been a banner year for American civil rights, Selma would still be a terrific movie, one that is touching and dramatic as only the best movies can be.

MLK may serve as the front man of this film, much as he did for the civil rights movement in real life. But just as in real life, he is far from the only warrior on this battlefield, and director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb do a terrific job of focusing on the movement, with the man only serving as the most visible part of that greater whole. By focusing on many other protestors, we not only get a more complete picture of who accomplished those marches but also a more impactful understanding of what those marches cost. The film captures not just the weight on King’s shoulders, or the strain on his family and marriage, but also the personal commitment and pain of all his comrades-in-arms, and even the political angst of Lyndon Johnson. Being able to juggle all of these different perspectives is no small feat, and it’s one that Selma does so seamlessly that you can’t imagine it being done any other way.

While it’s clear throughout who the good guys are here (and really, how could it not be?), the filmmakers are smart enough not to equate being on the right side with being saintly. Selma is fearless in depicting its subjects as people… flawed, conflicted, and human. It’s important to recognize that just because people are willing to stand up and fight for what’s right does not mean they are incapable of succumbing to what’s wrong elsewhere in their lives. King, the leader of the civil rights movement, cheated on his wife; Lyndon Johnson, who passed laws to ensure the protection of civil rights, was willing to ignore the racial problem for the sake of political expediency; and the civil rights movement itself, while presenting a relatively united front publicly, was constantly at odds with itself over the best way to achieve its goals. But none of this should diminish their ultimate accomplishments. Rather, it highlights how incredible those achievements were, to have been reached by such flawed, relatable people, and Selma demonstrates this perfectly.

On the other hand, the racist Alabama establishment, led by Gov. George Wallace, is never depicted in any way other than absolutely (borderline cartoonishly) evil. This isn’t a problem for me, as there was nothing about their actions that was not evil. There’s no time given to contextualize the actions of the Alabama government in their Confederate, states-rights past, and there should not be. These people were absolutely wrong and absolutely evil, and it is that wrongness that finally convinces Johnson to stand behind King, realizing that his political convenience is nothing compared to being lumped next to George Wallace in the annals of history. While that might be a self-serving way to see the service of justice, it nevertheless highlights the shortsighted ignorance of Wallace and his ilk, which is something that should always be pointed out when it’s present.

This fidelity to the truth of these people, both the good and bad, is highlighted in the finale. DuVernay makes the decision during the final successful march from Selma to Montgomery to present to us a montage of real-life footage of the actual march. This footage is smartly edited to include not just glimpses of the triumphant marchers, but also the bitter redneck racists who turned out to insult them. Of course, reminding us of the angry assholes who stood against MLK’s protest only highlights how necessary and how uplifting it ultimately was. And by showing us the real people, and driving home the reality behind this narrative drama, the emotional core of the story is only heightened

The final telling moment comes during the denouement, as Dr. King gives his speech on the steps of the Alabama state house and we are given the little textual postscripts on the various players in the story. We are told of the various members of MLK’s movement that went on to be long-standing public servants, and how the villains got the endings they deserved. But the final postscripts focus on Dr. King and the other martyrs of the cause, the ones that died fighting for these basic rights. It’s a sad, bittersweet reminder that things weren’t done, and still aren’t, even as Dr. King’s soaring rhetoric reminds us of the potential for success. This is Selma in a nutshell: it is both an uplifting reminder of the potential of peaceful protest and activism, while also being a sad testament to how much protest still needs to happen. But much as Dr. King and his comrades were not deterred in their time, we should not be deterred in ours from fighting for what’s right, and I defy you to watch Selma and not think the same thing.

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