Director: Ava DuVernay
“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
If you’ve ever taken a huge leap into the unknown only to be surprised on the other side by a host of loving arms waiting to catch you, you’ll have an inkling of the sentiments of the activists who took part in the three historic protest marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.
The first march took place on March 7, 1965 and was soon monikered “Bloody Sunday” because of the violence the police unleashed on the unarmed marchers when they crossed the bridge into Montgomery.
The second march, now joined by hundreds of white supporters from across the country, took place on March 9. This march was lead by Martin Luther King Jr., who, on leading the marchers across the bridge and seeing the police part to let them pass, had a sudden instinct that lives would be at risk, and so turned the marchers back. That night in Selma, racists murdered one of the marcher’s participants—civil rights activist James Reeb, a white pastor from Boston.
A third march, lead by James Bevel, Hosea Williams, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lewis, was held on March 21. By this time the crowd of marchers had grown to at least 3000, and they made it across the bridge.
In this film we see Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., civil rights leader and member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. In the next scene a group of adorable African-American youngsters are walking downstairs at the 16th Street Baptist Church dressed in their Sunday best, chattering happily, just before a terrific explosion robs them of their lives.
In Selma, Alabama, Annie Lee Cooper tries to register to vote. The registrar displays a complete lack of southern manners, but Cooper, clearly very nervous, guards her composure as she’s asked to recite the constitution, then name how many judges sit in Alabama. The registrar is clearly annoyed that she’s able to comply, and so asks her to name every one of the judges. When she can’t, he rejects her application.
(In a delightfully appropriate casting decision, this role was given to Oprah Winfrey, one of the richest and most influential women in America today. Point well taken.)
These kinds of barriers to African American enfranchisement were the focus of the Selma marches. Sure, there were lots of issues, but this one had top priority. Why? For one thing, their country had promised it. For another, they knew that if they could vote for their presidents, governors, and local officials, they could protect themselves from the deadly racism they were enduring as well as improve the conditions of their lives.
The film loses points for some contrived-sounding dialogue and a few questions of historical accuracy. The large number of Jewish participants in the march, for example, wasn’t shown in the film, not even Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who appeared with King in photographs of the third march. Also, according to SCLC activist and later mayor of Atlanta, Andrew Young, the relationship between Johnson and King was not as strained as the movie makes it appear.
But the few points lost are more than made up for by the fact that this is not only a moving and compassionate depiction of a great historical event but also an extremely practical introductory guidebook for social activists.
Unlike many activists today who simply embrace the latest cause to impress the folks down at the vegan restaurant, being an activist was no feather in the caps of Selma marchers, whose very lives depended on winning this fight. Sound strategies were essential, and the organisers had somehow managed to figure out what would work and what wouldn’t.
One major practical lesson learned from this story is the importance of raising the consciousness of those outside the afflicted group in order to exert pressure on its opponents. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had focused on raising black consciousness in order to increase the number of blacks registered to vote, but King was all about raising white consciousness, a tactic that in the end proved highly effective.
King also used an effective formula—”negotiate, demonstrate, resist”—and was relentless in carrying it out. The third part of that formula came in handy when responses to the first two were weak. The government could refuse to negotiate and could ignore demonstrations, but it was no match for a stubborn refusal to quit.
Another important tactic was that the civil rights movement didn’t shy from danger; in fact its leaders deliberately sought dangerous situations because they knew this was the best way to draw public attention to the crimes of their enemies.
That this movement rested on a firm spiritual foundation is a fact often ignored back in the sixties, both by secular activists who saw religion as part of the establishment and by religious people who couldn’t reconcile religious life with political action. In retrospect we can see how much a spiritual foundation grants a mysterious power to acts of resistance, something that white activists have only recently been willing to acknowledge.
Another plus was King’s sublime eloquence, his ability to rouse passions, encourage the fainthearted, and impart profound and relevant truths in simple metaphorical language, a skill he owed to the preaching traditions of the south. Copyright issues prevented director Ava DuVernay from using the original transcripts of King’s marvelous speeches, but her script does a fabulous job of conveying the beauty of his language.
Selma is a stellar reminder that if you have the courage to risk your life to walk through a door into who knows what, you may just find a host of angels waiting there to join you.
Selma manifests eight of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing.
It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
• It poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence.
• It’s about attainment of the true self.
• It inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation.
• It displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering.
• It gives me tools of kindness, enabling me to respond with compassion and efficacy to the suffering around me.
• It renews my enthusiasm for positive social action.
• It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.