On Travels, Selma and African-Americans in Film: Part II

In Part I of “On Travels, Selma and African-Americans in Film” I discussed my experience on a Civil Rights Spring Break tour taken in March 2011. In Part II, I discuss the 2015 movie Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, and my reaction to it.

When I am looking forward to seeing a movie I am rather strict about the process. Before I go to see a movie, I am always careful not to watch any interviews about it or read any reviews. I like to go in with an open mind and come to my own conclusions. When I saw the 2015 movie Selma it was no different, I was careful not to read any reviews prior and actually turned the station when I saw actor David Oyelowo being interviewed by David Lettermen.

In addition, I must:

  • Go to the bank and get a $20.00 bill to cover the cost
  • Go to the Friday Matinee on the opening weekend
  • Arrive 15-20 minutes early
  • Buy a large cherry Icee and a medium popcorn
  • Grab a stack of napkins
  • Find a seat in the dead center of the theater
  • Go use the restroom
  • Come back and enjoy the movie

As you can see, I don’t play around.

When I saw Selma for the first time, I was one of the youngest people in the theater the rest appeared to range from 30-80 years old. While waiting for the movie to start, everyone audibly crunched away on their popcorn and assorted snacks. However, ten minutes into the movie the side noises stopped and you could hear a pin drop as I along with the other moviegoers became engrossed in the film.

The second time I saw Selma, I was among the oldest in the theater- a large group of high-school students was in attendance. As the audience in from my prior experience, they became spit-quiet after the first ten minutes.

The Film

Selma is about what it took for a group of people (demonstrators, activists, and politicians) to establish change. We have insight into three prominent perspectives. Primarily Rev. Dr. King Jr, next protestors who are organizing and a glimpse at then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson view. While it heavily features Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta, it was not a biography. I saw Dr. King’s presence in the movie as an example of the sacrifice leaders of the movement were required to make.

Spoiler alert: In one scene, we see an overwhelmed King making a call to Gospel Singer Mahalia Jackson and asking to hear “the Lord’s voice.” He’s facing tension at home with his wife, Coretta, and wants to stay to reconcile, but must return to Selma.

Nearly every prominent male leader featured in Selma was married during the time the Selma Marches took place. It would be unwise to assume that they did not feel the same tension as Rev. Dr. King at home. They were required not only to spend weeks away from home at a time, but to put their life on the line in the process. I viewed Rev. Dr. King as a representation of that sacrifice.

Further evidence of the sacrifice made my Rev. Dr. King and his family is shown in this 1968 interview filmed after his murder.

As a person who loves all things history, I thoroughly enjoyed the power shown in this film. Actors in the movement are portrayed as skilled agents actively working to change the destiny of a nation. They aren’t portrayed as perfect giants that they are often portrayed as in history but as humans. Humans who make mistakes, do not always get along and can get angry.

The Critique

I am not one to think that any film is above reproach. However, I found the criticism of the 2015 film Selma to be particularly disheartening. In articles printed in The Denver Post and The Washington Post both point out a disagreement with the Portrayal of then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Those who disagree with LBJ’s portrayal of the film, say that it painted him in a negative light and that he was actually a champion of Voting Rights. (The film did not portray LBJ as against Voting Rights) One critic even made the argument that the march from Selma to Montgomery was President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s idea.

Unlike those who criticize Selma, I left the theater thinking that LBJ was depicted as an active leader. As a leader, you need to have a vision that motivates you. When you are approached with ideas that may challenge your vision or plan, you must measure it against your time-frame. I did not feel that LBJ was portrayed as an “obstructionist” as mentioned in several critiques of a movie but as a fair and balanced leader. Dr. King was an activist Lyndon B. Johnson was a politician. An activist has their mind on a certain agenda; a President has their mind of a multitude of agendas.

Conclusion

Selma is a strong movie that is worth seeing not only for the superior acting displayed, but the message that needs to be applied today. From the marchers that put their lives on the line, to the Civil Rights leaders and politicians who painstakingly worked together to effect change. Selma shows us that we do not have to be flawless to make a difference, all we need is courage.

Have you seen Selma? If so, what did you think of the movie? If not, do you plan on seeing it?

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