Descending from the 30,000 foot altitude at which most of us are familiar with the immortal words of Dr. King, and his accomplishments, we are brought down to a ground level view of what it meant to be fighting for a basic right.
The film is honest, but not heavy-handed, in its depictions of Dr. King’s failings and weaknesses as a human being, yet beneath these, a light can always be seen of emerging greatness. David Oyelowo’s King is a man, but one who, in a puzzle almost even to himself, seems to harbor a gift and a destiny that he never asked for. Oprah Winfrey plays her role in an understated manner fully subservient to the ensemble.
Make no mistake. Selma is not an idealized paean to a man who has come to occupy a place in our national pantheon which few truly understand. It is a claw grabbing us and pulling us down into the mud of what it was, as one of King’s Freedom Riders, to fight an established system of oppression for whom violence came naturally, and without qualms or compunction. King and his people lived with the shadow of death hanging over them every day, so much so that it seemed normal to make jokes about it. Recalling the Lakota Sioux battle cry, “It is a good day to die,” and looking around them in one gritty, backwater southern town after another, Dr. King’s men, and women, would casually remark on how one looked about as good a place to die as another.
In an era when all manner of patriotism has become twisted for imperial ends, and slogans misconstrued, the film Selma restores the true meaning of the saying: “Freedom Isn’t Free.” The fight for freedom has nothing to do with killing Iraqis who were never a threat to us, nor rallies inviting SUV-driving, suburban soccer moms to “support the troops.” Dr. King’s struggle is immediate, visceral, and dangerous on an intimate, personal level, minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day. People were being shot in the streets and beaten unconscious as they sat peacefully holding hands. To participate in King’s struggle literally meant to not know if you would be alive the next day.
What for? The right to drink from the same water fountain as a white man. To sit at a lunch counter. For the enforcement of a right already clearly delineated in the United States Constitution: the right to vote, and have that vote meaningfully counted.
These are not firebrands we see in the film. These are old ladies, old gentlemen, who conduct themselves with extraordinary dignity despite the worst outlashings of violence their oppressors can unleash.
For those who ever wondered if the tributes we now pay to Dr. King, and if the day named in his honor, are but another form of political correctness, and perhaps not fully deserved, this film will put those doubts to rest.
In Selma we come face-to-face with the worst side of America, and the best, as white people from across the nation travel to join Dr. King, and take their share of the beatings.
Most of all, in a time when many Americans have watched with trepidation and alarm the steady encroachment on their rights in the name of the War on Terror, Selma is relevant. Fatalism and hopelessness begin to seem out of place, as we watch what fellow Americans have done in defense of their rights, and won. The film seems to say: “Look at this glorious heritage which has been granted to you. These are Americans.”
The film also holds lessons for modern activists for social justice. One cannot help but compare one aspect of Dr. King’s organizing tactics to those of the most recent incarnation of what looked like a mass movement, Occupy Wall Street. Dr. King employed what seemed be a foreign concept to the Occupiers: message discipline. People watching the tear-gassing and mass arrests of the Freedom Riders were never allowed to have an iota of confusion over what it was about, as King and company always chose a clear, simple demand to accompany each campaign: the right to vote, the right to desegregated facilities. In contrast, Occupy Wall Street allowed itself to be perceived as a mishmash of malcontents wanting whatever the media said they wanted, or nothing at all except to be on the streets making trouble.
By adopting the film as his labor of love, co-producer Brad Pitt leaps the ranks of pretty-faced stars, and into the ranks of thoughtful and important film-makers.
There is no other way to put it, and it cannot be said forcefully enough. Selma is a life-changing film. All Americans need to watch Selma.