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Selma: the Civil Rights movement for grown ups

Posted on Wed 4 Feb 2015
Dr Edson Burton

Selma (from Fri 6 Feb for at least two weeks) is the gripping, inspiring and sometimes terrifying drama (astonishingly, the first film to focus on Martin Luther King made for the big screen) which tells of the months leading up to the historic 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, a march that would secure voting rights for African Americans.

Selma is part of Conversations About Cinema: Impact of Conflict, a new UK-wide strand which explores the effects of war and conflict through screenings, events and publishing. We’ve been working closely with Dr Edson Burton on the activity around Selma and there are loads of ways you can get involved – from Twitter Chats to introductions, informal discussions in the Café/Bar to post it notes – there are several methods to get your voice heard.

Edson saw Selma at a preview earlier this week and has kindly written this reflection on the film and Martin Luther King for us – explaining how the film dismantles the many mythologies surrounding King and the civil rights era, and how its story is relevant today. Edson will be leading The Fire This Time, a panel discussion on Sun 15 Feb at 15:00 which will look at the topic of ‘closure’ in cinematic depictions of Civil Rights but in the meantime, in advance of us hopefully hearing your thoughts, here are Edson’s…

Selma is the Civil Rights movement for grown ups. In his lifetime and since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr has survived endless cross examination. Reviled as a 'Uncle Tom' by Black militant groups, eulogised by a White America for that same integrationist stance, tarnished by revelations of his affairs, critiqued by historians keen to give others their due for the civil rights victories. Yet in the public imagination he is a dazzling otherworldly being floating above the realm of flawed humanity. Selma rescues King (as played by David Oyelowo) from the prison of deification, and he is all the more human and all the more extraordinary as a result.

Selma tells the story of the campaign to end voting restrictions – tests - that had kept millions of Black voters from qualifying for the ballot. The town Selma (in Alabama) is the battleground from where this campaign is fought.

Dismantling mythologies

From the outset Selma takes on and dismantles the many mythologies surrounding King and the Civil Rights era. Civil Rights was not a solo effort, and King isn't Moses but the leader of a battle-hardened cadre of Black professional activists drawn from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Authority, charisma and courage are suffused among these people, and it is they who lead the campaign during King's absence. SCLC's leadership is largely male – a matter of historical fact – but also a matter of fact is that they are reliant upon the formal and informal female leadership of women such as Diana Nash (Tess Thompson) and Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey).

Above all this is a movement which subsumed the divides of class, gender, education, age, politics and, eventually, race. Leaders and foot soldiers male, female, young and old marched together, were beaten together, were jailed together, rejoiced together.

Selma

Using media as a weapon

They marched not out of a holy commitment to martyrdom for martyrdom’s sake. As the film depicts social protest (carried out, in the most part, non violently) was a carefully considered pragmatically pursued strategy to provoke State aggression. The formula ran: state aggression equals media attention equals America's shame equals pressure on the Federal Government. King was way ahead of his time in understanding that media was the major weapon in the battle for hearts and minds.

The Civil Rights struggle was far from homogeneous - Selma captures the tensions between SCLC and the more militant grass roots activism of the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). They are critical of King’s methods but also envious of his ability to galvanise ordinary African Americans. King's nemesis Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch) also makes an appearance but here, too, he is a more subtle operator than given credit by his supporters. Fossilised by his adage ‘by any means necessary’ Selma perfectly captures Malcolm X at a time of ideological fluidity.

But it is the tension within King which makes Selma so much more than a revisionist history lesson. It begins with Dr King receiving the Nobel peace prize. Publicly he is at the height of his powers yet privately he is bruised by years of campaigning. Isolated, weary, fearful, he seeks consolation in the voice of Mahalia Jackson and in the arms of others. The coolness between King and Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) suggests she is aware of his many infidelities before they are brought to her attention. Exposed, isolated and doubtful over the efficacies of legislative change, King finds himself in the wilderness. He has the ear of the President but must take risks, and make others take risks to make him listen. These risks trouble him. Are they worth the prize? Is there, in fact, a prize?

Selma is then a story of spiritual crisis, exile and renewal. It's messianic overtones are kept in check by the multi-faceted character of the man. David Oyelowo is glorious in the role - capturing in subtle and powerful moments King's fully alive humanity. He does more than justice to a real life figure who remains a performer par excellence. And Oleyowo is not alone - there are excellent performances throughout. Sadly the richness of the Black actors only underlines the point that their talents are too rarely seen on the big screen.

Selma’s story today

On the whole Selma's relevance to today is unforced. By telling King's story director Ava DuVernay shines a searing light on 21st century race politics. It reveals too the ironies of our contemporary struggles: utterly merciless terrorism occurs throughout the film; legitimate protesters are beaten down as if they were enemy combatants in War; there is hunger and need at home but a lost cause is being fought abroad.

Perhaps most disturbingly unlike King's time, recording State brutality no longer stirs Justice into action. However, overall, Selma delivers a heart warming message of hope. Protest involves risk, discomfort, perhaps even martyrdom, but sustained committed activism can make a difference. It is as sublime and savage as the South itself: lush, still, haunting and raw – see this timely, urgent and quite remarkable film while you can.