There are few moments when you can watch a film and feel as though its speaking to the exact moment in which you are living, where art is imitating life with fluent vocabulary, dialect, and nuance. The last film I saw that provided an artistic outlet of the intense moment I was living was Fruitvale Station. The film, featured the life of Oscar Grant and the day leading up the moment he was shot in the back by BART police early on New Year’s Day in 2009. The film debuted during the summer of 2013 when the trial of George Zimmerman over the killing of an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, was running heavy in the news. When Fruitvale Station was over, I left the theater feeling deflated, grief-stricken, and to some extent, expendable.
This week, I saw Selma, a dramatic historical film covering the collective campaign to bring about the monumental Voting Rights Act of 1965. I realized I was again watching a film during a moment in which life was being imitated on screen. We are only just one month out from the failure to bring an indictment in both the Mike Brown case in Ferguson and Eric Garner of New York City. Marches have been ongoing throughout the country, but particularly in New York City where in an unrelated event, two police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were gunned down in their patrol car. I say, “unrelated” because despite the outrage over police brutality, the alleged murderer had no ties to the movement that is spawning over a desire to see real systematic change in our police forces and judicial systems. I say all this to say that in viewing the film Selma, context is prologue.
What made Selma remarkable to watch was its uncanny resemblance to our current circumstances. Just when the skeptic in me believed that marches were becoming ineffective obsolete tools of the past, I was reminded of what it meant to gather in solidarity, visually, symbolically, and politically. As the credits rolled to the song “Glory” by John Legend accompanied by Common rapping the lyrics:
That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our Hands up
When it go down we woman and man up
They say, “Stay down” and we stand up
Shots, we on the ground, the camera panned up
King pointed to the mountain top and we ran up
Indeed, Ferguson was Selma, gas masks and all.
For me, what makes a historical film like Selma successful is more about what it doesn’t do than what it does. It doesn’t try to cover the entire Civil Rights movement and boil it down into two neat hours—Eyes on the Prize could not even do this. It does not try to make it all about Martin Luther King Jr; this is not a bio-pic. Had Steven Spielberg directed it, we might have expected this, and a victory that concludes with the dominating contributions of white liberals. It does not give us the Disney version of King, a proverbial sandman talking of dreams and harmony.
Is Selma historically perfect? No, but dotting every historical “i” and crossing every “t” is not as necessary as showing an audience an authentic portrait of the human experience. What Selma offers is a multifaceted, nuanced King who was loved and despised by his own people. It shows us a King who leaned on others for encouragement and direction. King is flawed and even fearful, but does what many of us do in the black community: laugh to keep from crying. The film shows that us that the movement is not about the man, but about the collective. Titled appropriately, this film is called Selma and not King for a reason. In the film white allies are present, but they do not overshadow. They do not take over. Yes, this is what happens when we put a black woman behind the camera. Bravo Ava DuVernay!
I hope this film will be widely seen. There are many things I loved about this film. I loved the brief scenes that were used to make powerful points, such as the inclusion of Malcolm X, as someone who well understood the polarizing politics of perception and that to disagree was not a declaration of enmity. I loved seeing the humanity of a people tired of being denied, deterred, and disposed. I saw black people who were not dwarfed by speeches and rhetoric, but made real by their grief, and rage. I loved seeing Annie Lee Cooper, played by Oprah Winfrey, strike an officer with her handbag for assaulting an elderly man who could not bend his knees to kneel with his fellow protestors. I loved the uncanny likeness of Coretta Scott portrayed by Carmen Ejogo and the indomitable force that is David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. I love any history that can show white Americans as allies and not perpetual liberators, recycling tropes of white supremacy that we are all too familiar with in film. The film was visually stunning to watch and made you feel as though you were looking at the artwork and illustrations of Khadir Nelson jumping off the canvas and onto the screen. This is a film to love and be moved by—and not through the accommodationist lens of which we saw The Butler—but in the forceful way that glorifies resistance to tyranny.
Perhaps last year’s Oscar win of Steve McQueen’s 12 Year’s a Slave will continue to usher in new provocative and authentic portraits of the black American experience from it defeats to its victories and beyond. Perhaps, its momentum can bring on new films that will tell the story of Birmingham, Montgomery, Watts, and in time Ferguson. Audiences are ready.