Monday, January 19, 2015

Celebrate Martin Luther King Day with, "Selma"

I went away from the screening feeling empowered to write an inspiring review of Best Picture Nominee,Selma.” I was deeply moved by the image of marchers from diverse religions, black and white, standing together against injustice and inhumanity. These people risked their lives for the rights we enjoy today. And the themes are still so relevant in this time of racial discord and disillusionment with those in power. 

After a two hour bus ride home, I was struggling to remember what I was going to write. I knew I wanted to include an excerpt from Martin Luther King’s closing speech at Montgomery, so I googled it. I was shocked to find that it wasn't King's actual words. I was appalled that the African-American filmmakers (including Oprah!) couldn't get the rights to use the speeches because of copyright laws. Doesn't Martin Luther King's legacy belong to all of us? The rights had been sold to a rich white man. Steven Spielberg will probably do justice to Martin Luther King’s life as he did with, “Schindler’s List.” But the symbolism is still disheartening – a rich white man buying up intellectual property for his vision of Martin Luther King. I was so thrown that I couldn't face writing this for days. 

Then there was the unwarranted controversy around the accuracy of the film's depiction of President Lyndon Johnson as a deterrent to the march at Selma. Personally, I feel that filmmakers have a responsibility to be truthful in capturing important historical events. I listened to director Ava DuVernay‘s explanation that, "Selma," was her artistic vision. She suggested that people research it for themselves. I took up the challenge and found that President Johnson's involvement was not black and white. He was first and foremost a Southern politician. While he may have intended to pass the civil rights law, he was cautious not to lose too many voters. I believe that the movie is DuVernay's honest take on the events. Her vision is to invite the audience into the spirit of the movement from the point of view of its black protagonists. Yes, protagonists - plural. It was greater than just one man. It was a community coming together to figure out the best way to accomplish their civil rights objectives.

The movie shows how African-Americans were humiliated, threatened with losing their jobs, beaten or even killed for attempting to vote in the South. A group of civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo), decide that the best course of action is to fight for the unobstructed right to vote. King meets with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to request that he pass the Voting Rights Act. But the president’s goal is to keep a handle on the civil rights movement and he is interested in uncovering King’s next course of action. He claims that there is too much on his plate, including fighting poverty, to pass a Voting Rights Act.

The activists decide to bring attention to the issue by holding a non-violent demonstration in Selma, Alabama. As the protesters kneel down before Sheriff Jim Clark, a police officer strikes an elderly man who has difficulty kneeling. When two protesters intervene to protect the man, the police respond with a vicious attack. The protesters flee, but the policemen are unrelenting in their pursuit. One young man helps his family escape into a restaurant, where they pretend to be eating. The policemen track them down and shoot the young man in cold blood. Spurred on by this tragedy, the community rallies together. They organize a non-violent march from Selma.

Governor Wallace commissions Sheriff Jim Clark to teach them a lesson. When the peaceful marchers reach the end of a Edmund Pettus Bridge, Sheriff Jim Clark is waiting. He sics his armed state troopers on them. The nation watches, horrified, as the marchers are savagely beaten as white citizens cheer from the sidelines. Martian Luther King sends out a call to his fellow clergy to stand with him when they march again. Moved by the inhumanity, they come to show their support. It is inspiring to see black and white people from all religions joining arms and standing together.
The reason I wanted to include the excerpt from 
his Montgomery speech is that it still rings true today. Martin Luther King educates the nation on how after the emancipation, the Southern aristocracy was afraid of the freed slaves organizing with the poor whites for better working conditions, so they passed the Jim Crow segregation laws to separate them. The inherent message was no matter how low the white man was, the blacks were lower. (This is similar to the way our current politicians use undocumented immigrants as scapegoats, blaming them for causing the recession by taking the poor man’s jobs. Eighteen billion dollars was spent last year on immigrant enforcement. In Arizona, they passed a law that takes away our rights. Policemen can stop us on the street to ask for our papers. Of course, it is only brown-skinned people that they stop. Arizona has also disregarded the Voting Rights Act by requiring identification in order to vote.)

Witnessing the inhumane treatment of the marchers in Selma created more understanding of the plight of African Americans - which allowed President Lyndon Johnson to finally pass the Voting Rights Act in 1965. I hope that witnessing these events in, "Selma," will remind us of the difficult battle that was waged to achieve these rights, so we won’t allow them to be taken away.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Fueled by Ava DuVernay's treatment, I wrote, "Incredible Invisible Women Filmmakers." Read more about it in Scott Mendelson's excellent article, "Why Ava DuVernay's "Selma" Oscar Snub Matters."


"Selma," was honored with the Best Song Oscar for, "Glory," by songwriters Common and John Legend. They made the most of the opportunity with this powerful rendition at the Oscar ceremony.

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