There is a shock of recognition in the scenes that begin and end “Selma,” the elegiac new work by filmmaker Ava DuVernay.
Even if you know only a little about your history, the events surrounding the 1965 Selma to Montgomery, Alabama March will seem familiar. The characters — Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, John Lewis — are central to the story. But as retold in this film, often through the eyes of people whose names no longer ring a bell, you will be shocked by the saliency of the story.
On some level, we have all internalized the civil rights movement — the marches, the iconic voices, the laws — as a kind of dated backdrop to America as it is now. The last few years and the year to come have taken us through anniversaries of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights laws, the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision, and the March on Washington.
It is not insignificant that every time President Obama has been required to comment on a current day outcry over Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown or Eric Garner, he is compelled to remark on how far we have come. Americans are fond of viewing their most complicated history through the lens of progress.
But this film is not about our sepia tone memories, and it certainly does not allow us to wallow in the self satisfaction of having elected a black president. It is not about a country that could enable the raging success of the billionaire icon Oprah Winfrey.
It is one that is home to an entertainment industry that requires an Oprah Winfrey to get films like this made. (She has a small acting role in the movie, but a far more consequential one as one if its producers.)
DuVernay, a gifted storyteller, opts for a fair bit of shorthand throughout the film, setting aside the somber black-and-white documentary approach we have come to expect, for an immediacy that takes you inside the White House and also to mid-span at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where one marcher glances at the riot troops ahead, and remarks to the young John Lewis: “Can you swim?”
One of the most amazing details I came across while preparing for a post-screening conversation with DuVernay in Washington this week was that there has never been a feature length motion picture made about Martin Luther King Jr.
My other surprise was that to get this movie made, DuVernay had to rewrite much of King’s iconic speeches herself, because the King estate would not grant her the rights to use his actual words.
DuVernay does many interesting things with this film – some intentional, like drawing attention to the contributions of women like Diane Nash and Amelia Boynton. And, without tarnishing our memory of her, we gain a layered insight into the long-suffering Coretta Scott King, who – for instance — met with Malcolm X when Dr. King would not.
Thanks to historians like Taylor Branch and Robert Caro, these incidents and these individuals have not been entirely lost to history. But I daresay more people will see this film than have read their weighty history books.
This comes as a great gift at a time when we are wrestling with our history. The young people protesting nightly in cities around the country and around the world can’t help but remind me of John Lewis, who was only 23 when he was nearly killed while marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
But, as the closing Golden Globe-nominated song “Glory” plays and the credits roll, you cannot help but be jolted into the Michael Brown/Eric Garner present. How far have we come really?
The singer John Legend and hip-hop artist Common neatly tie together the then and the now.
“The movement is a rhythm to us
Freedom is like religion to us
Justice is juxtaposition in us
“Justice for all” just ain’t specific enough”