Every time a historical film about racism in America is about to be released, the same whiny talking points emerge from the predominantly (By a stupendously wide margin) Caucasian right wing:
"Here we go again, just another race-baiting white guilt movie designed to snatch some money out of the wallets of spineless white liberals. Yeah, yeah, we know slavery and segregation was bad, but we’re over all that now. Hell, we got a black secret Muslim Kenyan socialist president, we live in a post-racial society, no need to live in the past…"
Apart from pointing out either the stunning naiveté or the laughably obvious blanketed racism (It depends on your faith in people, I guess) of such complaints, the first thing that pops into my mind is always, "Is this really about living in the past? Is it really that irrelevant?"
Selma is a powerful, profoundly inspirational film about one of the most important moments in civil rights history, yet it made me think more about our present race relations than about the struggles of the past. If we don’t learn from history, we will be doomed to repeat it. We obviously have a lot more learning to do, so yes, films like Selma are necessary, especially if they’re executed this flawlessly.
It should be no surprise that Ava DuVernay’s impeccably directed retelling of Martin Luther King’s (David Oyelowo) many struggles in organizing the historical march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, contains a recreation of the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), one of the most tragic events during this conflict. After a nighttime protest receives a violent reaction from the police, Jackson and his family escape into a restaurant. When the police recognize them from the protest and start beating on Jackson’s grandfather, Jackson tries to defend him, which ends up with him getting shot and killed.
During this enraging sequence, as well as its heartbreaking aftermath, I could hear the predictable Republican talking points that are always regurgitated every time an unarmed black man is shot by the police: "If he didn’t resist arrest, he would be alive today. This has nothing to do with racism." Forget about 1965, how many times have you heard that morally corrupt argument just last year?
One of the first scenes in Selma depicts a heinous attack everyone who has a passing knowledge of civil rights history should be unfortunately familiar with (If you’re not, seek out Spike Lee’s amazing documentary 4 Little Girls). The way DuVernay refuses to build any sensationalist tension during this scene while letting the unexpected horror of the attack snap us back into the cold, harsh truths of the era creates one of the most impactful openings of 2014. What a horrible event from our distant (?) past, right? Yet if the recent failed attack at an NAACP chapter in Colorado was successful, and the building had a couple of little girls in it, would the outcome be any different?
As far as general tolerance and empathy towards racial injustice is concerned, I don’t think we’ve come very far. In fact we might have digressed. The most effective and powerful scene in Selma comes near the middle point, where DuVernay and editor Spencer Averick intercuts the violent police attack on a peaceful protest with the white public’s shocked reactions upon watching it on television.
This broadcast became the catalyst in bringing people from all colors together to fight against racial injustice and struck a formidable blow to anti-civil rights proponents. Yet even after the public just recently watched Eric Garner being clearly choked to death on video, a lot of people who still call themselves human beings responded with the same “If he didn’t resist arrest…” BS, as well as adding shockingly glib defenses like “If he wasn’t so fat, he wouldn’t have died.”
It looks to me like the people in 1965 had more humanity than that. And even if they didn’t, at least they were honest about their racism. They didn’t hide behind cellophane excuses, pathetic precursors like “I’m not racist, but…”, and my favorite, the word “thug” as an obvious code for “n---r”.
Like some of the best biographies, DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb focus on one important slice of their subject’s life. There aren’t any Oscar-bait flashback scenes showing King as a child standing against bullies and getting the inspiration for his mission in life or any similar nonsense, nor is there a wholly unnecessary depiction of his eventual assassination. This narrow approach gives the filmmakers enough breathing space to explore the details of the Selma march, while being able to capture the overall spirit and themes of the civil rights movement.
The cast is excellent and all perform beautifully, right down to the bit parts. However, it should be specifically stated that David Oyelowo’s soulful and energizing turn as Martin Luther King elevates the project into a modern masterpiece. A respected character actor with a bevy of impressive performances to his name, Oyelowo captures Luther King’s spirit and practically becomes him. It’s a mesmerizing, sometimes downright hypnotizing performance.
Selma tells a story that’s relevant now, and unfortunately will continue to be for a long time. It’s an experience that will make you feel angry, lost, inspired, and eventually hopeful. The fact that I think it should be mandatory viewing in public schools should not make it sound like a dull experience akin to eating your historical cinematic vegetables.