Selma. The name, heavy with meaning during the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, has reclaimed much of its significance with director Ava DuVernay’s recent film. DuVernay has directed eleven previous films, making Selma the twelfth. In 2012, she became the first African-American to win the Sundance Film Festival Best Director Award.
Released January 9, the motion picture caused quite a commotion. Thoroughly emotional, beautifully filmed, acted, and directed, and controversial in its portrayal of then-president Lyndon B. Johnson, it has been fodder for a number of discussions across the media.
I hadn’t known anything about the history of Selma before I saw the movie, besides a vague understanding that it connected to the Civil Rights Movement. All I knew was that people were talking about it; newspapers were writing about it, people were asking me if I’d seen it yet, even before it was released in theaters. I went on the film’s website and watched every award and nomination blurb cycle over clips and stills from the movie as the Golden Globe-winning original song “Glory” played in the background.
The film itself lived up to all its expectations; suddenly I understood why everyone was talking about it. Selma struck a chord—by providing human context and an insight into the choices Martin Luther King Jr. had to make as a leader, the movie made the march beginning on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 personal and impossible to ignore. The movie attached faces and emotions and human lives to the name “Selma.”
Because of DuVernay, Selma is not only the town where King and thousands of others began a march to end discrimination on a day now referred to as “Bloody Sunday.” It’s the place where King grappled with moral decisions—whether to subject himself and his followers to brutal beatings or to pull back and risk the anger of the peaceful protesters and the loss of the march’s gusto and hype. It’s the place where he thought about his family back home, his wife subject to anonymous offensive calls and death threats.
DuVernay was able to take a few moments in history and explore them deeply to reveal not only the difficult choices King had to face and the anguish behind them, but also the reactions of Lyndon B. Johnson and other government officials.
The White House scenes are arguably the most controversial aspect of the film—Johnson is depicted as trying to discourage King from marching in Selma and attempting to win his support on the War on Poverty.
Joseph A. Califano Jr., one of Johnson’s assistants for domestic affairs, claims in a Washington Post op-ed that the march from Selma was actually Johnson’s idea in the first place. Does this change the way the film should be construed?
I think it should be kept in mind, but in order to understand DuVernay’s point, it’s necessary to follow along with her process. After all, the film was never supposed to be a documentary.
“Bottom line is folks should interrogate history. Don’t take my word for it or LBJ rep’s word for it. Let it come alive for yourself,” DuVernay wrote in a Twitter post on December 28 last year.
The film as a whole is overwhelming. It’s long (2 hours and 8 minutes) and contains many violent scenes—the bombing of the Birmingham Church, a young black man shot in a café in front of his parents, black women and men being chased down like prey and beaten amidst a haze of gas on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a white priest beaten to death.
Oprah Winfrey, playing Annie Lee Cooper, attempts to register to vote and is denied based on the fact that she can’t name some 60 Alabama County judges. Annie Lee Cooper is a real-life activist, famous for knocking Sheriff James G. Clark to the ground with a punch to the jaw after he refused to register her to vote.