“We’re going to have awful seats.”
My friend and I paced down the hallway of the Southdale AMC Theater, arriving on the dot to see the 8:10 showing of Selma. We reached our theater and were surprised, and, in my case, disappointed, to see that the theater was sparsely filled. It was opening night. To be fair, this was due largely to circumstance: it was a holiday weekend, the roads were awful, and there were multiple other movies opening that same night.
Though the audience was less than I had expected that night, the movie was not. Ava DuVernay, the primary director of the film, who also made large non-credited contributions to the script, condensed a complex history, one with many individual storylines and tangents, into one dramatic masterpiece. While there have been critiques of the historical accuracy in the depiction of the dynamic between President Lyndon B. Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., DuVernay argues that she made executive artistic decisions. In an interview with Rolling Stone DuVernay responded to the critique, stating “I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie; I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma. […] This is a dramatization of the events. ” The discussion that has followed Selma is similar to what follows many period pieces; The Imitation Game faced similar criticisms. However, given the rise in news coverage of anti-racism work and protests initially sparked last summer in Ferguson, MO, some argue that Selma holds a greater responsibility in educating the public about the civil rights movement. This raises the question: does art have a responsibility to accurately depict and retell history?
As a young person seeing the movie, I made no harsh assumptions about LBJ, nor did he seem extremely vilified. As an artist and filmmaker, I do not see DuVernay’s actions as ones worth great conflict. I believe that the film took great strides in portraying the horrific acts of racism of the past, and provided easy parallels to the continued acts of violence towards people of color across the US today.
History, as it has been presented to me throughout my educational career, comes through a filtered lens. The slaughter of people of color has always been missing or glossed over in the textbooks presented to me in school; Japanese internment camps were never mentioned, we spent probably a total of two weeks on the civil rights movement, the Trail of Tears was brushed over after one test… the list goes on. For me, as a seventeen-year-old senior in high school, Selma illustrated the violence that black people faced, and continue to face, far better than any classroom lecture. While DuVernay’s depiction of LBJ is in fact inaccurate, there are many times that our actual education system is just as, if not more, deceitful—the clear difference is that one situation is centered in an artistic interpretation of events, and the other is presumed to be a factual account which has the sole purpose of educating American youth. The story and its impact are truly, as DuVernay intended, coming from the people of Selma; it is DuVernay’s interpretation of the truth, as a woman of color, director, and student of history.
One of the standout moments of the film came from actor and producer Oprah Winfrey. Oprah is a cultural icon, a well-known and beloved figure that has graced American screens since the early 80s—which is why her presence is particularly effective in this film. In the early stages of the film, Oprah first appears on screen in her portrayal of Annie Lee Cooper, the viewer following her heartbreaking struggle to register to vote. We see Oprah again in the first demonstration outside the courthouse in Alabama. She is seen attacking a cop who is in the midst of beating a peaceful elderly man attempting to get down on his knees, and her defense turns the officer’s attention to her. We then see a slow motion close up of Oprah’s face as she is thrown to the ground, her head hitting the cement.
This scene serves as a direct connection with present day, as it seems almost impossible to unlink Oprah’s legacy and the pain displayed on screen. Seeing a well-known figure like Oprah face uncensored police brutality is gut wrenching, and it effectively confronts viewers with the reality that, had Oprah lived in this time period, she likely would have been subjected to the same despicable attitudes and same vicious violence that Annie Lee Cooper dealt with.
The film also goes to great lengths in combatting the one dimensional, widespread depiction of MLK as an idealistic, touchy-feely dreamer, instead showing Dr. King as the radical and flawed activist that he truly was. Throughout the film we see MLK in points of weakness—times where he leans heavily on God and those around him. We see his continual understanding that, at any moment, he could potentially face a brutal attack—he is shown cynically joking with his friends, claiming Selma is “as good a place to die as any.” We also see the effects of the constant harassment and threats on his wife, Coretta Scott King, in addition to the strain of infidelity in their marriage.
Overall, the film is undeniably relevant, important and striking. Selma invokes painful, but critically important, emotional responses and does so through a well composed, edited and acted cinematic work of art. I could not recommend seeing it more.