To my fellow Americans, Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day! I don’t believe that I have to explain the legacy of Dr. King for the United States, but I would encourage everyone to go and research more into the man’s life and work because the public education system has not done an adequate job of, well, educating. I have been wanting to see the movie Selma since viewing the first teaser/trailer and was a little concerned that it would not reach theaters all the way down here in South Texas. Thankfully my worries were ill advised and I was able to see the movie, multiple times. I wholeheartedly endorse others to do the same. In fact, finish reading this and then go see the movie.
Of course, while watching the film I was moved and brought to tears a few times (I tend to close off emotionally due to upbringing and use sarcasm and intelligent observation as methods of guarding and holding people/things at arm’s length so anything that gets an emotional response from me is surprising), but beyond the sentiment I was amazed by the level of detail, expertise, and willingness to show/teach the audience more than what they were probably familiar and comfortable with. Obviously, I immediately knew I was going to write on this film, so here goes. As always, SPOILERS ahead.
Like most films based on true stories, there is some aspect of artistic license to ensure a good story, but nothing in Selma seemed extraordinary or out of place. In fact, I had a hard time disbelieving anything that happened on screen could not have occurred. Most Americans are at least tangentially familiar with the story of Selma and the famous march that happened in Alabama, however, the film opens up the narrative and shows what was going on behind closed doors. Much like Lincoln did for its namesake, Selma shows not the major event, but how it came to be. Which brings us to the first lesson: there are great complexities, machinations, and choices that created major historical moments and icons.
This is most evident early in the film upon the first meeting between Martin Luther King Jr.’s organization and a local civil rights group, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (pronounced snick). SNCC is accusing King and his group of coming in and trying to take over after SNCC has laid ground work and done much for the community. They also accuse King of running from legitimate problems and struggles, like Albany, once the media attention goes away. In short, they are accusing King and his peers of being glory hounds only interested in attention and not the movement.
King then calmly explains that while the work groups like SNCC is important for the black community, his organization is interested in drawing white consciousness and attention. They are there to force the media and its millions of viewers to see what the black community is enduring to force the hands of politicians to enact change and enforce those changes. King is playing a specific and intelligent game. He knows what is needed to bring about legitimate change quickly and chooses his stands and battles carefully to further his agenda.
We constantly hear about the happy accidents in history that led to immense events. It makes sense the absurd is memorable and make for great stories. However, it is a disservices to forget the strategy and mental calculations involved in creating history and many of the so called “happy accidents” we love to tell.
Selma does not mythologize its Martin Luther King Jr. There is a desire to create near gods out of those who have done something great. We want them to be pristine totems of greatness for us to aspire to and use as an excuse for when we fail. The truth is that no person is perfect and King was no different. The film addresses this in a few key scenes. There is the confrontation between King and his wife, Coretta, about his lack of a home life and his emotional attachment to the other women in his life. She is fully aware of his shortcomings, yet remains by his side in his times of need. Whether this is because of her understanding of the importance of his work or her love for him, the film does not make clear, but it does not condone or excuse King’s actions. (Though the validity of infidelity and extramarital affairs are constantly in question, the film chooses to use them as part of the narrative)
Beyond that, there are several instances in the film where Martin Luther King Jr. experiences doubt over the movement and questions whether or not he is actually doing anything for the people. He is unsure of the path he has chosen and what, if anything, will come of it. Can you imagine Martin Luther King Jr. questioning his efforts? This brings us to the next lesson: if King had doubts who are we to think everything is certain? I know the question form is a little weird, but it is true. Individuals who were actively changing and forming history as we know it had doubts about their efforts and themselves. What arrogance drives us to think we will not have or should not have any? I fear the man who is absolute in their certainty far more than the one who questions their actions.
The final lesson is pretty obvious, but also most likely an unpopular one. Nonetheless, it was the most apparent to me as I saw the film and in particular when I heard the ending song during the credits. We have come so far, but have much further to go. Seeing the news recently, it becomes a bit difficult to believe that we have supposedly overcome the trials of the past. It seems like there might be some regression which is why as an audience we need media like Selma to remember and visualize history, even the parts we are uncomfortable with. I am not saying the movie will fix or cure the ills that conflict us, but it will also not let us ignore that illness in the vain hope it will go away.
In honor of that idea, and the memory of those who gave so much in attempts to fix such major social problems and issues, I’ll leave you with this:
Thus endeth today’s lesson.