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January 12, 2015

“Everything was on fire” – ‘Selma’ director aims to capture spirit of civil rights moment


“Selma,” the first feature film to focus on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is inspiring discussions about the civil rights movement and artistic interpretations of history.

Director Ava Duvernay said she intended to portray the spirit of the movement, not create a documentary on the events. “I can get into a debate about the minutia of history and interpretation, but I’m not a custodian of anyone’s legacy,” she said.

The film chronicles events in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 when civil rights leaders led a campaign for voting rights. It garnered praise from film critics, but some historians disputed its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson’s relationship with King.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had banned discrimination based on race in public places and employment, but black Americans still faced voting roadblocks including literacy tests and voter ID laws.

In 1965, King and other black leaders began a campaign of civil disobedience in Selma, Alabama, where only two percent of the black population—335 people—were registered to vote. In March, Alabama state troopers attacked people marching from Selma to Montgomery, an event that became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Joseph A. Califano Jr., who served as Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs between 1965 and 1969, said the film inaccurately paints Johnson as resistant to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the march. Califano’s editorial quotes a phone call between King in Johnson in which Johnson said that a voting rights act would be “the greatest achievement of my administration.”

Director Duvernay said that the relationship between the two was complicated, and that her film aimed to raise questions about the relationship between the two.

“These were two great minds who often were in a chess match,” she said. “To say that this was a skip in the park and they were holding hands the whole way is to really just be really disingenuous about what was happening at that point.”

Warm up questions
  1. Where is Selma, Alabama? What part of the country is it located in?
  2. How is a documentary different from other types of film such as drama, action movie or comedy?
  3. What do you know about the Civil Rights Movement? Who were its leaders? What were important moments/events that took place during the battle for equal rights for African Americans?
Critical thinking questions
  1. Nearly fifty years after his death, Dr. Martin Luther King is the central character in the movie “Selma.” Why do you think it took so long for a feature film to focus on him?
  2. The film has received both acclaim and criticism of its portrayal of the events surrounding the marches from Selma to Montgomery as well as those involved. PBS NewsHour anchor Gwen Ifill said, “The second time, I was looking at it with a little bit of historical scrutiny, because there have been so many questions now raised about the choices that you made.  What has been your response to all of that?” Duvernay said, “My response is that this is art.  This is a movie.  This is a film.  I’m not a historian.  I’m not a documentarian.  I am an artist who explored history.  And what I found, the questions that I have, the ideas that I have about history, I have put into this project that I have made.” Do you feel that DuVernay’s response to the historical controversies is adequate? Why or why not?
  3. The film touches on several important points about King and the Civil Rights Movement that you may not find in your textbook:
    • The role the FBI played in tracking King and bugging his home, hotels, etc.
    • That King was a leader in the Movement, but there were many others who changed history
    • The Federal Government was often reluctant to intervene in the battle for equality.

    How do you think textbook editors make choices about what parts of history to focus on? If you were a teacher covering this period of history, how would you decide how to allocate your class time?

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