Selma is a stark reminder of the discrimination that was so pervasive and violent in the US—and is erupting from beneath the surface today.
The movie begins with Dr. King accepting the Noble Peace Prize. The second scene is of four girls walking down the stairs at their church moments before a bomb explodes and kills them. The third scene is of Annie Lee Cooper attempting yet again to register to vote, and ultimately being denied because she couldn’t name all 67 county judges in Alabama.
Those three scenes lay the groundwork for Selma.
Although the history is well-known, perhaps known only in broad outlines by some and in more details by others, fifty years after the events is good time to reflect and remember.
As I watched the events unfold, I was repulsed by what Americans were and did, either actively involved in the violence and discrimination, or complicit through non-action. In violent confrontation after violent confrontation, I found myself instinctively despairing how anyone could have thought this was acceptable. Surely America and Americans are better than retorting to such actions of discrimination, hatred, and murder?
The focus of the movie is on Selma and the march(es) from Selma to Montgomery, but the movie also shows meetings between King and Johnson. Dr. King urged President Johnson to support voting rights. Without the vote, African Americans could not really hope or work for better conditions. For example, since juries are made up of people registered to vote, juries are almost always completely white, leading to racial criminal injustice.
But Johnson has bigger issues to deal with. The movie depicts Johnson as being concerned with his legacy and the war on poverty. While a war on poverty is a noble war, this was not the time, King argued.
King wants the President to pass legislation to enforce the legal right African Americans have to vote. The President wants King to back off. King starts looking for a place where the conditions are ripe for a standoff over voting rights. Selma, Alabama is perfect.
King and his organization arrive in Selma and step on the toes of local activists (SNCC) doing community work. The movie depicts a fracture between the leaders of SNCC with John Lewis of SNCC ultimately joining King and company in the famous march.
King agrees that SNCC as doing good work, focused on raising the conscious of black folks. But King contrasts this to his work, which focuses on raising the conscious of white folks. The point, King argues, is to create drama to get on TV so white America cannot ignore their problems.
The movie covers all three marches from Selma: the initial one where marchers were beaten by Alabama State troopers, the second one that King aborted at the edge of the bridge, and the third one where marchers completed the 54-mile walk to Montgomery.
The sacrifices of the marchers are not papered over. This is not a kumbaya moment. People are injured in the march. People are killed (both black and white participants). King struggles with whether the cost is too great, aborting the completion of the second attempt at the march because of the looming potential for deaths. Even the completion of the march was not a bed of roses. People were injured and killed immediately after it.
King shows his doubts, but is strengthened by John Lewis who reminds him of an earlier speech that he gave about the struggle.
Johnson seems personally sympathetic but politically unable to move in directions where his morals lay; King ends up manipulating the Great Manipulator into passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Hoover appears in conversations with Johnson, depicted as a conniving, smarmy character who sees King as a moral degenerate. He offers to destroy King or at least destroy his family.
Wallace is shown as the Confederate-loving, racist governor he was.
Even Malcolm X makes an appearance, meeting with Coretta King to assure her that his views about radicalism were changing, but that he would use his perceived extremism to help drive whites to side with King (rather than risk what they perceive would be worse with Malcolm X).
Selma contains a lot of famous actors and excellent performances. I was overjoyed to see Oprah Winfrey back on the big screen and playing a feisty woman who was fighting for her rights.
The movie is particularly poignant given the Supreme Court decision in 2013 to repeal part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as no longer being relevant. The Supreme Court’s assessment seems diametrically opposed to reality. States previously curtailed from discriminatory practices have enacted laws and practices that make it harder for people, particularly those of color, to vote. Clearly, the Supreme Court decision reflected the views of white privilege, which argues that discrimination is dead. In fact, discrimination never died and blatant discrimination has been allowed to flourish again.
King famously asked, “What happens when a man stands up and says enough is a enough?” A relevant spin on this question during present times when open expression of racism and discrimination has become acceptable: What happens when a man doesn’t stand up?