The greatest strength of Selma, director Ava DuVernay’s cinematic retelling of the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965, is its recontextualizing of the American Civil Rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington are staples of academics, historical landmarks passed by every year from elementary school onward, and through that repetition comes a familiarity with the vocabulary of the Civil Rights Movement, from “I Have a Dream” and Letter from Birmingham Jail to police dogs and fire hoses, that can too easily be presumed fluency.
In elementary school I understood the Civil Rights movement to be a battle for freedom, a battle against bad guys. In high school I wrote off those opposed to racial equality as ignorant bigots. Simpletons who didn’t know any better. In college I grew to better understand the severity and history of oppression in America. Since college, however, I haven’t really tasked myself with reconsidering that period in American History. Now, watching Selma for the first time amongst the backdrop of current national and worldwide headlines I’ve been tasked with reevaluating and have come to realize that often enough the Civil Rights Movement involved non-violent opposition to domestic terrorism.
Selma doesn’t depict anything new. The bursts of brutality in the film have been immortalized in the American iconography in a number of black and white photos and videos. But being presented with the violent opposition to voting rights again, at this specific point in time, one can’t help but compare the actions of the extremists portrayed in Selma with other fear mongers around the world today. Which brings about a dimension of the Civil Rights Movement that perhaps isn’t as actively displayed as it should be. The terror of it all.
The participants in the Civil Rights Movement faced up to a terrorism not only largely unopposed by law enforcement, but often enough enacted by law enforcement. Terrorism that would be met with no recourse by those in power. And they faced it marching unarmed.
Selma makes you forget about the academia and history and politics and racism of it all and instead asks you to simply consider the fortitude of an unarmed crowd standing up against oppressors that could very well kill them and get away with it unquestioned. We’ve heard the stories of the Civil Rights Movement so often that they begin to feel like stories. Stories and characters and plot points that happened long ago. Selma breathes life into those events and those men and women and showcases the intensity of both the violent intimidation and the steadfast bravery displayed by real citizens of the United States less than a century ago.
American Sniper, the Chris Kelly biopic, has caused great debate in regards to what should and should not be considered facets of American heroism. For those such as myself who continually find themselves lost in the fogs of that discourse, Selma is a lighthouse shining bright.