Selma: the Film, the Facts and the Field.

by Michael Nagler and Mercedes Mack

The film “Selma,” portraying the historic march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, AL in 1965, is a gut-wrenching experience that brings the viewer into the vehemence of the prejudice and the stunning courage of its resistors in this intense critical moment in the history of racism in America – and of nonviolence in the world.  The acting ranges from very good to superb (more on that in a moment).

People who know the history, like our colleague Prof. Clayborne Carson, editor and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project, have pointed out that the film has inaccuracies, notably in its negative portrayal of President Johnson, who in fact worked pretty much with King to secure the Voting Rights Act.  Director Ava DuVernay seems to have transferred some of the difficulties King had with Kennedy to Johnson, for whatever reason.  It has also been claimed (admittedly by the former governor’s son) that the one-sided portrayal of George Wallace is grossly unfair.  Certain it is that DuVernay and writer Paul Webb missed a golden opportunity when, during the historical updates that roll out at the conclusion of this and other biopics, they failed to mention that Wallace came to the 30th anniversary of the march and apologized for his former segregationist views.

It is much to be regretted how not only this film but Attenborough’s “Gandhi” over 30 years ago, missed their opportunities to really show some of the power of nonviolence.

We never see a moment in either film when, in the words of southern writer Marshal Frady,

. . . in the catharsis of a live confrontation with wrong, when an oppressor’s violence is met with a forgiving love, he can be vitally touched, and even, at least momentarily, reborn as a human being, while the society witnessing such a confrontation will be quickened in conscience toward compassion and justice.

In the field of nonviolence this is known as a “nonviolent moment.”   It happened in the long freedom struggle in India, it happened in the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., and we daresay in the personal experience of most of us.  These moments are the living source of nonviolent power.  If we could learn from them we could change history.  And filmmakers, among others, could play a key role in that learning.  Let no one say this cannot be done.  Look at the rally scene at the beginning of “Beyond Rangoon” with Patricia Arquette or the last scene of “The Long Walk Home” with Whoopi Goldberg, Cissy Spacek, and Dwight Schultz for scenes of high drama and nonviolent power at work.

The film gives a good account of the strategic reasons for one to be nonviolent in such a situation but does not explore its strange power to move human hearts. The deepest it delves into this key phenomenon is in the horrified reactions of whites elsewhere as they watch Bloody Sunday on television. The essential belief of nonviolence in the empathy that is inherent – though sometimes conditioned out of awareness – even in those who hate is missing in the film. Nonviolence argues, and science now confirms, that injustice inflicted upon another is simultaneously inflicted upon ourselves, which is why King and his close followers often said to white people (but not in this film), ‘we’re going to win your freedom in the process.’

This being said, DuVernay touches on the seemingly inevitable struggle a movement faces when their efforts do not yield readily visible results. We want action and change now and fail to recognize the constant improvement that is taking place, primarily as the awakened empathy in each person.  This is by no means a fast process, but it creates the foundation for lasting change.

Needless to say, the portrayal of violence in any retelling of the famous Selma to Montgomery march is not “gratuitous.”  Without its violence – and its nonviolent resistance – there is no story.  However, DuVernay chose to bring to bear all the considerable techniques of modern cinema to make the violence as graphic as possible.  This, we feel, was perhaps gratuitous.  It is perhaps why in the end we left the theater appreciative, to be sure, but not uplifted.

David Oyelowo probably comes as close to giving us Martin Luther King, Jr. as it is reasonable to expect.  The real King had a controlled passion that fired hearts and imaginations.  He said, with some justice, that the movement did not lead to outbursts of anger; they “controlled anger under discipline for maximum effect.”  Oyelowo’s King is passionate, to be sure, but more of a haranguer stirring up intense emotionality.  Again, an opportunity lost, here to convey what is probably the most profound secret of nonviolence.

We do not want to leave this review on a negative note, however. “Selma” is a powerful film that is well worth seeing. Even if it were not the case that our post-Ferguson society is embroiled in the same agonies as 1965, this film captures a moment of history when ordinary Americans were transfigured into what we are all capable of if we only knew how to bring it forth.

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