I saw Selma this evening. I found it deeply moving. I’m still thinking it through, in some ways – this blog post is part of doing that. But in short, it’s worth seeing.
It’s hard to know where to start, reviewing a movie like this. The reality is that because of its topical material, the weight of history bears down incredibly on this movie. It’s a turning point in American history, an enormous shift in a massive country. A moment when, from what I understand, a grass-roots, non-violent protest contributed to an enormous shift in government policy, and real change that re-shaped participation, democracy, and the country.
Because of how significant the moment is, and how complex it is historically, two hours will never really be enough to tell the whole story. As someone with no detailed knowledge of the story, there were scenes that felt as though they were short-hand, quick mentions of topics in a way that seemed more acknowledgement than meaningful examination. The relationship between the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Committee was one clear example; it felt as though there was a more complex history, that wasn’t spelt out.
More broadly, there’s a question of what the narrative arc of Selma is really about. The title – the name of a current US town – could suggest a whole host of things. The protests, building on a national movement with work by dozens. The conflict, and the experiences of hundreds and thousands of people, coming from across the country. The complexities of it, the experience of what it was like to march through the heat towards implacable violence and meaningless hatred. But in narrative terms, the film seemed to me a little unbalanced. The first half is strong, in many ways; it pits a movement of unarmed, non-violent protestors, and shows their cunning in using a particular strategy and context to fight for their rights and freedoms. That’s an empowering message, and it tells that half well. The second part, and the narrative arc that went with it, though, felt a little forced to me. Ultimately, it seemed to come down to a conflict between Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson; one committed to the cause, the other wanting to move on to other political goals. The issue becomes a struggle between them; in a way that seems to make LBJ the villain, rather than the broader society he’s part of, or the system that prevents equal rights.
I don’t have enough historical knowledge to say anything about LBJ’s role, or what his relationship with MLK was like. But it seems to me that there are bigger questions, and bigger conflicts at stake in Selma, than simply shifting a President who it seems was already reasonably on side. There are questions about how a society sees itself; how non-violence can triumph; a dozen other questions. The battle between MLK and LBJ doesn’t strike me as the most interesting one.
I should say, that for all of the dryness in my discussion of the history, and the view the movie takes of events, it’s incredibly moving. It shows people who have suffered for years (there’s a haunting scene where after jumping through ever harder hoops, a woman is denied her vote), standing up and assertively but not aggressively working for their rights. I struggle with the language here; I feel clumsy in what I’m trying to say. It is a movie about bravery, about enormous courage and commitment in the face of horrific and incredibly selfish violence. [I was about to say senseless violence, but that’s not right; racism fits into a larger power structure and can be very clearly self motivated; I won’t go into that here, but as always Ta-Nehisi Coates says it brilliantly in his article on reparations, and in various posts on his blog]. It left me sniffling, and with tears trickling out of my eyes at points. It is enormously moving; not because it plays particularly on the emotion, or overdraws it, but because it tells about incredibly powerful events, and does so well.
It does that, even without drawing directly on MLK’s famous rhetorical ability. Something I didn’t know was that MLK’s estate has his speeches restricted; so they are not available for use. So, none of the famous speeches are in the movie. Despite that, the rewrites provide King with powerful words, and they’re delivered to good effect.
A final factor that makes the film particularly poignant is the historical context. The movie itself is very grounded in the moment; perhaps wisely, it doesn’t explicitly make any statements linking the events in Selma to a contemporary context. Regardless, subtext is virtually impossible to miss. People struggle in a system that systematically discriminates, under a power structure that disenfranchises and does not represent them, and a government that tracks dissident voices. Voter ID laws are a real threat to enfranchisement; key parts of the Voting Rights Act have been gutted.
Because of all that, it seems apt when the trailer features a voice pounding out in time to the footsteps of the marchers, ‘This revolution goes on and on’. After several attempts, I’ve just found out that the music is drawn from ‘Say it like it really is’; a 2011 song by Public Enemy.
Music is another theme that isn’t prominent, but that runs through the movie. Apparently MLK used to ask for gospel songs when he needed encouragement, and that’s reflected in the movie.
The credits close out with ‘Glory’ by Common and John Legend. It’s superb. But as Common raps, ‘Now the war is not over, victory is not won’.