by Tom Nguyen
I caught an advance screening of Selma at Hammer Museum last Tuesday and it was a full house. I gave my extra ticket to someone who had waited 2.5 hours in line after a long drive from Orange County. There was a similar over-capacity crowd when it screened at the AFI Fest and the film has already picked up major awards, as it is poised to sweep the country, when it opens today on Christmas in select cities and nationwide on January 9. All the attention is justified. With the nation embroiled in nationwide protests against police brutality in black communities, there could not be a more timely and much-needed film right now for us to reflect on how far we’ve come as a country, but also how little has changed for many of us in communities of color.
Claudia Bestor, Director of Public Programs at the Hammer, gave an impassioned introduction to the film. She lamented that the depicted events occurred only 50 years ago and not only are racist attitudes still troubling our country but they seem even more overt and bold during this Obama presidency. Bestor struck a positive hopeful note saying the film is “a great reminder that Americans used to know how to organize muscular mass movements for social and economic justice and we can do this again…this film is coming at a perfect time to show us and remind us how it’s done.” As grassroots activists prepare for Millions March LA this Saturday, Dec. 27, inspired by the massive marches in NYC, the film is a potent reminder the power of mass movements for social justice and political change.
The film is the first time Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., played by David Oyelowo, is depicted on the big screen and focuses on his efforts to secure black voting rights with the 1965 Memphis to Montgomery march in Alabama. The film shows how achieving voting rights in the South was a monumental effort of discipline, bravery and political maneuvering by King and the movement. They endured beatings, shootings and imprisonment, all the while remaining non-violent, literally sacrificing their bodies to the merciless onslaught of police brutality.
In the face of this oppression, the film is honest in showing King’s moments of strength and eloquence, as well as his moments of self-doubt and the toll on his marriage and family life with his wife Coretta Scott King, played by Carmen Ejogo. Demystifying King from the icon to one of a human being we can all relate to, is the film’s most powerful and inspiring message. In a Q&A following the screening, Dede Gardner, one of the film’s producers, explained it was their goal to “show Dr. King, the man, not Dr. King, the myth. If you do that, what he accomplished, which is so remarkable over a very short period of time and at an incredibly young age, then becomes possible for all of us.”
Anyone following the nationwide protests will instantly recognize parallels between then and now. When King and his marchers are told their march is illegal because they’re impeding traffic, the scene eerily echos today’s criticisms of protestors blocking freeway traffic here in Los Angeles. When a few protestors in the film seek guns to retaliate against the police, there is a debate about non-violence vs. violence. In preparation for this Saturday’s peaceful march, I’ve participated in similar contentious debates about non-violence with protesters who do not rule out self-defense and active resistance, like the Zapatista armed movement in Mexico.
The film will no doubt fuel this continuing debate in activist circles. Those who believe in the moral superiority of non-violent and peaceful protest will point to this film as a reminder of King’s triumph using non-violence. Those who believe more radical measures of survival must be taken against state oppression will point to government collusion and resistance portrayed in the film, and his subsequent assassination, which a 1999 civil trial brought on by The King Center founded by his wife, concluded deep government duplicity was involved.
Director Ava DuVernay was outspoken and candid that King’s non-violent strategy was more complex and radical than most people realize: “I’m from Compton, so I’m a real Panther X kind of gal..I grew up kind of thinking King was soft…It wasn’t until I got to UCLA and African American studies and really started to get into the nuances of this history. I found out what a radical King was and how radical SNCC and the SCLC…and these organizations that I thought were previously a little soft. To really get into the non-violent theory, if there’s anything that we show in this that I hope changes people’s minds is that King was more than “I have a dream”, he believed in peace and he died. That really is about as much as people know. There’s so much more to him…to just imbue the story with all that nuance that it’s a shame has been disappeared…he’s been so smoothed over and homogenized….If there’s anything that I learned from my studies and that’s what I poured into this and hopefully you come out of it thinking differently about him and all of the people of the civil rights movement, and what “we come in peace” really means and what it really took. ”
She also spoke candidly about the current protest movement: “In my lifetime, I haven’t seen, felt this kind of activist energy, people taking to the streets spontaneously, in organized ways…organically around these incidents in such a consistent manner…This is something different and they keep growing and morphing and they’re taking on different forms and it’s not a person-led movement like King, or Malcolm X, or the Panthers, or the Kennedys. It’s a people-led movement and happening through social media…there’s just something about it that’s beautiful and tragic and…there’s some momentum happening there…and so for us to…to add to the conversation in some ways…we’re completely honored…so for us to be political is a good thing if we’re fitting into that….We’re not allergic to any of it…No, we’re in it.”
DuVernay, who founded the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) to promote independent black cinema, concluded the Q&A by encouraging audiences to support the film, because “It’s scarce that we’re seeing films…with protagonists of color, made through the gaze of filmmakers and storytellers of color. It’s rare. So when it happens, it’s a gift, but it’s also really necessary that it works. Because this success will dictate what happens next year, just like [Steve] McQueen’s success last year [director of 12 Years a Slave] made this year possible. Unfortunately this is the construct that we work in. It’s a show-and-prove every time for a certain kind of filmmaker….We really do have to ask people to step up and make it possible, not only for Selma to be a success, but if we want to continue to see” films by people of color.
Watch the rest of the absorbing Q&A with DuVernay, actors Ejogo and Common (who plays activist James Bevel and contributed to the soundtrack), and producers Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner. The screening was part of The Contenders film series at Hammer Museum, with films curated by MoMa as having important lasting significance, and runs through Jan. 13.