‘Selma’: American History, Raw And Honest

I leave movies more discouraged and sure that our world will never truly change. But Selma is different. I left this movie hopeful.

Selma is much more than Black history. It is American history. It is our history. Within all of us we understand the fight and struggle for change in order to make a better life for those who will come after us—even if that means that we won’t live to see that change. Selma is not a movie for African Americans. It’s a movie for all Americans.

 

Historical biopics or docudramas that chronicle a period of American history where blacks are unjustly oppressed are difficult to imbibe. American period pieces involving the history of Africans and their subjugation by Anglos seem to always promise to conclude hopefully. They remind us of the sins of our fathers and remind us the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. In each film the protagonist arrives at a moment of lucidity, garners courage from the depths of their beautiful soul, and rises triumphantly from the unjust oppression before culminating in the final act of “sticking it to the man.”

This often solicits rancorous cheers from moviegoers. Yet I’m often immediately discouraged because much of what is hopeful and triumphant in the film only proves to be a mirage once I leave of the theater. Somehow I leave more discouraged and sure that our world will never truly change.

But Selma is different. I left this movie hopeful.

Raw and Honest

Selma does not cower away from the physical and emotional brutality of the struggle for African American voting rights in Selma, Alabama, during a three-month period in 1965. By concentrating on this historical vignette, Selma shines. Rather than approaching this biopic as a quest to compile the highlights of a venerated figure’s life,Selma director Ava DuVernay focuses on a tiny window of history that changed history. SCLC uniforms (black suits, white shirts, and thin black ties) and scarred stoic faces juxtaposed against the pressed and unkempt uniforms of police officers and state troopers as they clash throughout the film in raw and ugly dispute.

Further, Selma does not cower from exposing the moral failings of Dr. Martin Luther King. While the impact of Dr. King’s leadership of the Civil Rights movement is magnanimous and will rightly reverberate into history, he suffered from the common condition of profound creaturliness. This fellowship with mere mortals is a surprising strength of the film. Dr. King appears, well,human.

Throughout Selma he’s tired from long nights, distracted by threats to his family, fearful for the lives of the faithful, and doubtful concerning the ultimate end of the movement—a side of “Doc” we seldom see in grainy microfiche. The film tastefully addresses his smoking habit, his insatiable appetite for food, and his covert sexual promiscuity. Raw and honest, DuVernay portrays a terrestrial Dr. King who is pedestrian at worst and valiant at best—all the while honoring him as a towering historical figure worthy of remembrance.

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