I had mixed feelings as I entered the movie theater to see “Selma” as a scholar of the civil rights movement.
On the one hand, I am thrilled that there have been so many movies about African-American history and civil rights released in the past four to five years, but I’m always concerned about whether they really were fair to the movement.
My particular research on Prathia Hall has led me to spend a considerable amount of time studying Selma.
Originally led by Bernard Lafayette as part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Hall became its second leader in 1963.
Yet “Selma” focused primarily on Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
Some in SNCC were very upset that they were not consulted by the movie’s makers, and others were upset that key people in its story – like Bernard Lafayette and Prathia Hall – were omitted.
There has also been considerable dialogue about the movie’s portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson, as almost an adversary of the movement or as someone who wanted to run the movement according to what best honored his administration’s agenda.
Johnson pushed through legislation in 1964 and 1965, but like President John F. Kennedy before him, he did not consistently enforce existing laws to protect civil rights workers. People died on his watch because of police brutality and racist violence.
As I watched the movie, I found myself being less concerned with those issues and genuinely grateful for such a raw and graphic portrayal of the story.
All too often, we avoid learning about things that matter because it’s too painful. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard my students say that they don’t want to go see a movie because “it’s just gonna depress me.”
When we go to the movies, we typically want glitz, glam and warm fuzzies – an entertaining escape from reality. But we are being entertained to our downfall.
“Selma” is a very entertaining movie. It is beautifully acted, with interesting and provocative music and cinematography. It incorporates historical footage seamlessly. It has action, drama and romance.
But it’s so much better and richer than that. It is a movie about something. It is a movie that tells a story worth telling.
We need movies that show the horrors of our history in plain view. We need movies that don’t sugarcoat reality or pick and choose what audiences will best like to see.
We need movies that make us think and compel us to act. We need movies that stir our souls, quicken our heartbeats and empower our feet to take steps for change. And “Selma” delivers.
After the movie ended, I could barely get up from my seat. My mind and heart were racing as I juggled the competing desires to journal and plan how I’d get my students involved.
Even days after, my mind keeps going back to the film. The freedom singing. The tension between SCLC, SNCC and Malcolm X over the best way to move for change (“The Butler” and “Selma” are among the best movies I’ve ever seen that deal with that).
The challenge of being willing to risk your life and trying to keep as many people safe as possible.
The challenge of comforting those who are suffering day in and day out from the weight of oppression, but fully aware of the evils of systemic racism and its pervasive power in the American South.
Before we can have a conversation about change, we have to understand what happened in order to recognize what’s still happening and to think about how to make things better.
And we need strong messages in media forms like “Selma” to get the point across.
The film is not a perfectly accurate portrayal of what happened. Some people were left out, while others’ roles were understated and overstated.
The movie is not meant to be a literal historical reenactment, but a perspective on a historical event.
“Selma” is powerful, mesmerizing, provocative, challenging, uncomfortable, tragic and inspiring.
Whereas “The Help” alluded to the close-range assassination of Medgar Evers in his driveway in front of his family rather than showing it, “Selma” puts you in the middle of the wreckage and the center of the fight. It will hurt, in a necessary way.
“Selma” should not only be seen but also used as a spark for conversation with your church, family and friends. Share what moved you, what challenged you, what you never realized.
The film invites viewers to grieve over oppression, marginalization and the death of innocent people, and to reflect on the role of the government, the people and the church.
After confessing our own fears and the steps we’ve been afraid to take, “Selma” inspires us to take them.
Courtney Pace Lyons works at Baylor University, where she studied Prathia Hall and earned her doctorate in church history. A longer version of this review first appeared on her blog and is used with permission.
MPAA rating: Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment and brief strong language.
Director: Ava DuVernay
Writer: Paul Webb
Cast: David Oyelowo: Martin Luther King Jr.; Carmen Ejogo: Coretta Scott King; Tom Wilkinson: President Lyndon B. Johnson; Oprah Winfrey: Annie Lee Cooper.
The movie’s website is here.
Courtney Pace, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Church History and Director of Admissions at Memphis Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tennessee.