As I walked into a nearly empty theater showing the 2014 historical drama “Selma,” on Monday, I sat down expecting to view a revitalized biopic of Martin Luther King Jr. taking charge of the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s. I figured I would leave the theater with simply a feeling of inspiration and perhaps a list of stunning quotes to tweet later that night.
Seven minutes into the movie with tears streaming down my face, it appeared that my naive expectations would be dramatically inaccurate. Screenwriter Paul Webb and director Ava DuVernay’s portrayal of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963 in Alabama rendered me speechless.
It is impossible to chronicle the entirety of an event as emotional and radical as the civil rights movement in a single film. “Selma,” however, takes but a snapshot of this time period and highlights just how critical this story was and is to our nation’s history when it comes to social justice.
“Selma,” depicts the controversial events of the Selma Voting Rights Campaign when supporters marched from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery in an effort to gain equality of voting rights for black Americans in 1965.
I was surprised to find the movie focused on more than praising King’s words. Tense scenes between King (played by David Oyelowo) and his wife (played by Carmen Ejogo) revealed flaws in the leader. The film also highlighted the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s original opposition in joining King’s movement because they wanted their own set of demands as a black civil rights group.
The movie continued to leave me in a jaw-dropping state of shock with intense scenes of historically accurate violence and abuse, like the heartbreaking murder of an unarmed black protester Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), the assault of activist Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), and the gory events that occurred on Edmund Pettus Bridge, historically referred to as “Bloody Sunday.”
Still, the film had a resounding message of resilience. I saw unmatched strength through those characters who kept marching after losing loved ones. I felt the inspiration through King’s incredible words of hope that things would get better for those who fought for their rights using their voices and acts of peaceful protests.
I anticipated that “Selma” would expose this institutionalized discrimination against minorities in their journey seeking equality. Indeed, these aspects were captured by graphic scenes of police brutality, heartbreaking trials of discriminatory practices that, while illegal, went unpunished, and the initial apathy of the government to aid black Americans in their efforts to seek equality. The film also highlighted the tragedies that followed many white Americans who marched in support of the civil rights movement, and the frustrations of President Lyndon Johnson who encouraged King’s campaign.
I left the theater feeling shaken, frustrated, confused and upset, not because of what happened in our past, but because of the strong correlation to what is happening in our present.
It seems like society has recently been erupting over issues that are similar to those depicted in “Selma” of 50 years ago. Race riots and controversy about police brutality disproportionately against minorities are powerfully reminiscent of recent events, like the controversies surrounding Ferguson, Mo., in late 2014, when protesters clashed with police after the shooting death of Michael Brown. Furthermore, basic human rights of all Americans who joined the fight against injustice were threatened by those intolerant of change. It appears that we are just now becoming aware that we are repeating history.
And if we are repeating history, if we, as a society, are just like “Selma” in a way, then I am left wondering what our Edmund Pettus Bridge will be and when our march will happen. When can we admit that problems of 50 years ago and earlier are still occurring today? When can we, like King and Johnson, discuss the inequalities in our nation, beginning right in our communities and neighborhoods and find a way to peacefully carry them out in practice? What will happen when we, just as King’s character in the film, ask, “What happens when a man stands up and says enough is enough?”