Given his significance in our nation’s history and his role as a source of inspiration for so many, you would probably assume there must have been a film about Martin Luther King, Jr. But while he has factored into many stories captured on film before, there hasn’t been a major motion picture focusing on his life. Director Ava DuVernay has taken on his story in Selma, and avoids many of the biopic pitfalls to make a beautiful, riveting and moving film. It features an amazing cast, led by a wonderful performance by British actor David Oyelowo as Dr. King.
The film doesn’t come out until January, but I was fortunate enough to catch a (not completely finished) screening of the film in San Francisco last weekend. Here’s why I think everyone, but especially activists and organizers, should make sure to get out and see Selma next year:
It aptly portrays the organizing behind the big moments in civil rights history. The film smartly focuses on a limited time period, capturing the campaign to register voters in Selma, Alabama, and the march from Selma to Montgomery. Many of the moments will be broadly familiar from what you learned in US history class. But DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb dig deeper. They portray the conflict between various factions of the civil rights movement, from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to the Southern Christian Leadership Council to Malcolm X. The film doesn’t just show a triumphant march. It shows the anger other activists felt toward Dr. King when he turned back on the Edmund Pettus Bridge after drawing supporters for a second march from all over the country. Students from Selma argue with outsiders coming into their town with their own agenda, a dynamic that will be all too familiar to activists. As DuVernay pointed out in a post-film discussion, there were many brilliant people who could have been movement leaders, and they didn’t always agree on the best approach.
The film also shows the interplay between the inside and outside strategies the civil rights movement deployed. Dr. King has access to the president, and uses it to try to move the goals of the civil rights movement forward. When he can’t create enough pressure in those meetings, he talks through the strategy with activists. They carefully plot their campaign with an eye to media attention and the importance of making their struggle impossible for Lyndon Johnson to ignore.
It shows the human being behind the icon. We’ve all seen Martin Luther King giving a speech. We haven’t seen him taking out the trash. DuVernay devotes time to King’s domestic life and his closest relationships. Selma shows Coretta having to show him where the trash bags are. It shows their tense conversation about his extramarital affairs. You see his doubt about his ability to make change as he sits in a jail cell, and his ego as he lashes out at Coretta for meeting with Malcolm X. These nuances give audiences a more authentic picture of the man and the movement, and important perspective to current and future activists to see this vulnerable side of one of our greatest heroes.
We need more films directed by women of color. Women directed only 6% of the top grossing films last year. Only 4 women have been nominated for the best director Oscar in 85 years. People of color have been vastly underrepresented in all aspects of filmmaking as well. One way to get more films made by women and people of color is to support them with our dollars, and to tell other people to do the same. Ava DuVernay is already getting well-deserved buzz about possibly being the first black woman nominated as best director. When we have more women and people of color making films, we get better roles for women and people of color, and much-needed variety in the perspectives we see on screen. DuVernay has made a brilliant film, and surely a different film than a white man would have made with the same subject matter.
It will remind you not to take your right to vote for granted. After a particularly depressing Election Day, it’s easy to become disillusioned with the electoral process. As Selma aptly demonstrates, voting is only one piece of the puzzle. We all understand intellectually that voting is something people in this country had to fight for. But we’re also distant enough from that history that it’s easy to forget how recently people struggled, bled and died just to be able to do something that many people can’t be bothered to do today. To watch 82-year-old Cager Lee beaten in the streets so he can be the first person in his family to register to vote is a visceral reminder that we owe our predecessors to never take that right for granted. Sadly, people are still fighting to exercise the right to vote unencumbered today, from convicted felons in Florida to low-income people in Texas, and we can’t stop organizing to give everyone the power they deserve at the polls.