This evening, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I went to see the movie Selma. As the credits rolled and the music and lyrics of the award-winning song Glory filled the theater, every person stayed silently in their seats. To say this film is powerful is a great understatement.
This isn’t a formal movie review. This is just me, sorting through my initial thoughts a couple hours after the movie ended.
First, I will say that I know the entirety of this film is not historically accurate. The writers took some creative liberties, especially in private conversations. Some people have especially pointed out the extreme misrepresentation of President Johnson in this film. The speeches of Dr. King are paraphrased and given some creative license because of copyright laws. Shifting timelines of events, combining characters, imagining conversations, exaggerating a bit for dramatic effect are all pretty standard for films based on history. We would do ourselves a disservice if we allowed those things to distract us from the big picture of the story of Selma, Alabama and the lessons we can learn from history.
Some of the scenes were difficult to watch. I winced and covered my eyes as police officers beat people in a dark street. I covered my mouth and held back tears as police officers sprayed tear gas upon crowds of people, chasing them down the street, beating them with batons, cracking whips against their backs. When a mother sobbed over her son’s dying body, tears streamed down my own cheeks.
Other scenes caused hot anger to rise within me. To watch men in positions of power use that power to oppress – well, it makes me angry again just to think of it. Seeing the injustice on that huge screen and knowing that the basics of this story actually happened, that this was real stirred within me a righteous indignation. And, honestly, knowing that -though we have come so very far – we still have great disparity in this country blends that righteous anger with a deep sorrow.
Earlier today, my sons and I watched a video of Lavar Burton from Reading Rainbow read a story about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I paused the video at one point to remind them what segregation meant – that black children attended a different school than white children, played on different teams, played in different parks, drank from different water fountains, sat in different parts of public transportation. We began to name all their friends who wouldn’t be in their schools if segregation had continued. I listed a few names, then they each began reciting names, and their faces fell as they personalized this awful truth of history. Selma is a stark reminder of what it cost for these friends to sit beside my pale children in class, of all the sacrifices endured in the cause of justice.
In the movie, at the funeral of a black man shot by a police officer, Dr. King said,
Who murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson? Every white lawman who abuses the law to terrorize. Every white politician who feeds on prejudice and hatred. Every white preacher who preaches the Bible and stays silent before his white congregation. Who murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson? Every Negro man and woman who stands by without joining this fight as their brothers and sisters are brutalized, humiliated, and ripped from this Earth.
Quotes like that, coupled with the blatant racism of some white people in the film and the compassion that stirred other white people to action, really are convicting. The speeches of Dr. King and the bent toward inaction of some in political power really shine a light on the culpability of those who do nothing. As I watched tonight, I thought of the words of Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
In one speech in the film, Dr. King said,
It is unacceptable that they use their power to keep us voiceless. As long as I am unable to use my constitutional right to vote, I do not have command of my own life. I cannot determine my own destiny. For it is determined for me by people who would rather see me suffer than succeed. Those that have gone before us say, ‘no more! No more!’ That means protest. That means march. That means disturb the peace. That means jail. That means risk. And that is hard. We will not wait any longer. Give us the vote. We’re not asking. We’re demanding. Give us the vote!
Watching a black woman try to register to vote and seeing what she was up against — Seeing right there on the screen the abuse of power by local and state politicians — The insurmountable odds stacked against black people spelled out so clearly in this speech and in the scenes surrounding it — all of it was so powerful in showing why great, organized nonviolent action was necessary to bring about change. Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had to strategically choose which battles would attract the most attention so that a huge light could be shone on the evil.
I have mentioned the sorrow and anger I felt watching this movie, but I also felt great hope. Groups of people changed the world through organized acts of nonviolence. When met with extreme brutality and horrible oppression, Dr. King and his friends and followers responded peacefully yet powerfully, not backing down. It is possible for love and light to overpower hatred and darkness. It is possible to change the world for good with good.