In an early scene in Selma, a sunlit stairwell is the backdrop for several floral-clad girls chatting happily about the hair styles of Coretta Scott King. This gorgeous vision then explodes before our eyes, and with it comes the realisation that this is September 15, 1963, and we’re at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
This is the moment when four young girls were murdered by a white supremacist terror campaign bent on halting the progress of the civil rights movement. For anyone who feared that the involvement of Oprah Winfrey in this film might mean an overdose of nostalgia, this explosion forecasts something quite different.
Ava DuVernay’s Selma marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, the legislation that put an end to the racist barriers that stopped black citizens from voting in the south. In turn this paved the way for some measures of black political power. Events in Selma made this happen.
Then and now
In the age of president Barack Obama, it’s hardly surprising that DuVernay’s cast were keen to pay their respects to the fact that, as Obama himself so often put it during his 2008 election campaign, they were “standing on the shoulders” of civil rights “giants”. As David Oyelowo, who offers a breathtaking performance as Martin Luther King, asks: “How can we serve this incredible community who put their lives on the line for the privileges we now enjoy?” Yet the film does not fall into the trap of sanctifying the movement and its leaders. Neither does it suggest that these privileges are a done deal.
Oyelowo’s King, though often inspiring and inspired, is also often visibly crushed by the burden of leadership. Doubts and indecision reveal a man as much tortured by issues of tactics as he was grounded by his much more well-known philosophy of non-violence.
Selma doesn’t spare us King’s personal flaws either: his infidelities as a husband are subtly elicited by a wife whose intelligence and composure often seem to more than match his own. Indeed, the film weaves a dense set of relationships around the figure of King to highlight the fact that behind the highly visible male leaders of the movement – often unhelpfully deified by civil rights memory – were vast numbers of ordinary heroes, many of whom were women.
King’s relationship with president Lyndon Johnson is one of the most remarkable aspects of this film. Selma decisively debunks the view, most notably articulated by Hillary Clinton in 2008, that it took a president to get the civil rights legislation passed. DuVernay’s film shows that, like Lincoln 100 years before him, Johnson was a reluctant agent of change, forced to respond to his times.
Tom Wilkinson’s convincing portrait of the president registers a deep frustration with King’s determination and impatience: as he finally tells Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) “just let the niggers vote”. This scene is immediately followed by his televised speech to Congress which announced the Voting Rights Act: “There is no Negro problem. There is no southern problem. There is only an American problem … We shall overcome.”
Selma or Ferguson?
All this echoes with the profoundly contradictory position Obama finds himself in 50 years later. Obama’s tendency to conflate his signature “Yes We Can” with the “We Shall Overcome” of the 1960s civil rights movement in the early days of his election campaign encouraged a comparison to King; but his subsequent entry into the White House places him closer to the legacy of Johnson. Obama also presides over unpopular wars abroad while facing his own version of civil unrest at home. Many have noted that this film, appearing in the wake of recent events in Ferguson, is extraordinarily timely. The song “Glory”, which accompanies the closing credits of Selma, makes these parallels between Selma and Ferguson explicit.
This gesture to the present hardly rings false: the film’s depiction of police on horseback violently dispersing demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge recalls images of state-sponsored terrorism from slavery to the present. And yet there is a danger in drawing this comparison. Ferguson is not Selma, and the latter should not be established as the model for the former.
Though this is not the explicit message of the film, Winfrey herself has not been able to resist the temptation to suggest as much. While promoting Selma, she expressed a mixture of admiration and frustration with the Ferguson protests:
What I’m looking for is some kind of leadership to come out of this to say, ‘This is what we want. This is what has to change, and these are the steps that we need to take to make these changes, and this is what we’re willing to do to get it’.
This condescending remark reveals the problem with drawing parallels between then and now. Figures like Oprah Winfrey and Jesse Jackson who have tried to reimagine Ferguson in the shape of older civil rights struggles overlook the fact that the young grassroots activists in Ferguson and across the United States are responding to a fundamentally different political situation.
The vicious, outspoken racism dramatised in Selma is largely absent from a society that has elected a black president and imagines itself to be “colour blind”. The systemic racism that stalks the contemporary US speaks through racialised inequalities and a federal government that is retreating from the business of state welfare as it ramps up its penal functions. Deep and widespread poverty and disinvestment that particularly afflicts black communities will not be solved by legislation like the Voting Rights Act. These problems require a new kind of politics.
Selma is deeply compelling but not entirely satisfying: this, one feels, is one of many patches in a much longer story yet to be told. The figure of Martin Luther King has hardly exhausted his cinematic possibilities. But the film has sent out a powerful message from the past: not a nostalgic yearning for particular models of civil rights leadership, but a call to reject the stranglehold the US government has on King’s legacy.