Hollywood films that depict American history deeply influence our sense of national identity. Films that portray Civil Rights and Black Freedom history are particularly important.
Beyond entertaining moviegoers, films like Glory and Remember the Titans have served as barometers of US race relations. As (mostly) stories of progress and triumph, they provide us with the picture of morality we wish to project as the world’s leading superpower.
Needless to say, who gets to tell these stories, how they are told and why they are told is no simple matter. In her new film Selma, director and co-writer Ava DuVernay plunges into the history of the Civil Rights movement, and emerges with a new and important vision of an oft-examined era in our nation’s history.
An intricate, layered story
Selma retells the story of the 1965 voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama, a moment in Civil Rights history that played a crucial role in the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Focusing on the three month period (January to March) in which Martin Luther King, Jr. was invited to lead the campaign, the film magnifies Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s humanity – his relationship with wife Coretta, his inspirations and his fears and doubts.
DuVernay rejects the statuesque “I Have a Dream” King favored by most official memorials. She doesn’t valorize him as an “Individual who Overcomes” (a familiar trope found in films like Django Unchained and The Help) or as “The Redeemer” who saves the US from its racist past and fulfills the dream of a more perfect union (found in the figure of Obama at the end of the recent film The Butler).
In Selma, King is portrayed as a man constantly unsure, a leader who wrestles with the significance and lasting value of the movement he leads. He vacillates over the true effectiveness of Civil Rights legislation. He questions how much is accomplished by sitting at a lunch counter if one cannot afford the lunch. He realizes the necessity of wealth redistribution as a more fundamental tenet of equality (a memory of King that comes closer to the kind of work he did towards the end of his life during the Poor People’s Campaign). It’s a characterization that transcends our culture’s obsession with individualism (and Hollywood’s penchant for “The Great Man” biopic). It doesn’t subject itself to an easy American morality tale.
The film also surveys the larger story of the campaign, detailing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s strategies and tactics, instances of voter discrimination and King’s dealings with the White House and LBJ. Then there are narratives of police terrorism, the internal conflicts between SCLC and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the depictions of the Civil Rights players who stood by King’s side during the campaign. In short, the film does many things, both intimate and grand, providing an awe-inspiring lesson in storytelling.
Movies as living memories
Of the many things that Selma does differently, the film’s insistence on the living memory of “those who came before us” is most notable. Of course Civil Rights films pay homage to its martyrs, but this film makes their presence and significance palpable.
Selma opens with King’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. “I accept this honor for our lost ones whose deaths pave our path,” he booms, “for the twenty million negro men and women motivated by dignity and a disdain for hopelessness.” This scene is spliced with the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, which caused the deaths of four young girls. Here, themes of loss and tragedy become visually embodied; time and space intertwine and overlap in ways that seem only possible in the art of film.
Yet this conflation of time and space doesn’t exist idly on-screen. It’s impossible not to connect the images on screen to the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice (and those who came before them), which inspire thousands of marchers to take to the streets just outside the theater.
This innovative trope of “living memory” moves and shapes the narrative all the way through the film credits, when the actor and rap artist Common, in his song “Glory,” tells the audience
One son died, his spirit is revisiting us, true and living, living in us, resistance is us, that’s why Rosa sat on the bus, that’s why we walk through Ferguson with ours hands up.
In Selma, the past seeps into the present; the line between art and life blurs. The film doesn’t leave viewers with a tidy resolution, but rather offers lessons of those who came before. It’s the collective spirit of both the living and the dead that churns the winds of change.
These images that emerge from Hollywood are ones the nation can be proud to identify with.