“Selma,” directed by Ava DuVernay, tells the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement to enforce the right to vote for all citizens by marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.
It was a war, but only one side had weapons.
Joining with colleagues such as a friend who works at the local market, the local high school teacher, a neighbor’s grandmother and many more, American citizens walked on the sidewalk on a bridge only to find horses, cars and crowds urging them to go back to where they came from.
Using a constitutional right, the citizens remained on the sidewalk, planning to continue walking. Within moments, the horses carrying men began to charge. Cans with gas that impaired vision were thrown. The crowd behind the cars cheered and the marching citizens scattered and ran.
When the horses reached that friend from the market or the local high school teacher, the man on the horse took a blunt object and beat the person over the head, knocking him or her to the floor. As the individual lay there trying to get up, another man ran over and began pummeling that person with a similar blunt object until he or she was left motionless.
Those same men beating them were the individuals who, by law, were supposed to protect them. Those same angry-looking men on horses were the police force with the job of keeping all citizens safe. Those same men were white, and those walking were black.
This was that time. This was Selma.
Growing up in a predominately Caucasian neighborhood, my teachers talked very little about the civil rights era. Our history books had about nine sentences that “summarized it.” One sentence talked about Rosa Parks, then King and finally Malcolm X. It was after this that we moved back to European history.
Still, my curiosity overcame me. I would watch documentaries and talk to elders who were directly affected by the racism in the 1960s. I desired anything that would tell the truth about our country’s past, and “Selma” was no exception.
With all of my research, I couldn’t have seen a better movie to explain the details of this historical era. DuVernay specifically focused on one aspect of the civil rights movement: voting. With honing in on the voting issues in Selma, she was able to highlight the brutality, the segregation, the ignorance and the unmerited, unshakable and unreasonable hate.
DuVernay brought to life rich information by simply telling this one story from King’s life. We gained insight on not just what he had to fight, but on his own fallbacks, fears, hesitations and flaws. We learned that he was human.
In fact, there was criticism regarding a certain aspect of his humanity. “Why did they have to tell us that he was an adulterer and that he smoked?” asked Charles Johnson, a fellow movie-goer.
I’ll tell you why. It showed that he lived in the 1960s. Much like the show “Mad Men,” which takes place then and so eloquently points out, smoking was a rampant thing at the time, and unfortunately, so were extramarital affairs.
In my experience of talking about King, I have had multiple conversations that end with people dwelling on the fact that he was a cheater. The latter part of the conversation is completely separate from all of the hard work he put into changing this world.
This characteristic of King always bothered me, yet I had nothing to refute that fact. He was a pastor and a cheater, and that is heartbreaking. However, that is why it was so powerful that DuVernay put it in the movie: to put all those futile conversations to rest. By including these scenes, she is reinforcing the idea that although King made a mistake and cheated on his wife, he also accomplished many great things that should be remembered.
His wife, Coretta Scott King, played by Carmen Ejogo, would receive recordings of him with another woman. Having that part in the movie showed that he had many things he was struggling with, how remorseful he was and the way that was affecting his family. I’m not married, but I know that has to take a toll on a relationship.
Another criticism of the movie was the portrayal of the president at the time, Lyndon B. Johnson. He was depicted as a president who resisted all of King’s notions and criticized the civil rights leader harshly for demanding the right to vote freely.
Due to the all-white government, Johnson had King in one ear and lawmakers in another; he had to look out for himself.
In the movie, speaking to King, Johnson said, “You have one problem, I have 101.”
“Selma” was elegantly produced, brilliantly directed, skillfully acted and tastefully written. It evoked all kinds of emotions, and is definitely a movie to see regardless of your background.