When does an event, movement, or personality cease to be current and become historical instead? Is it the moment they end? On the one hand, I suppose that’s correct, but on the other, the implications of events, movements, and personalities continue to reveal themselves long after the thing itself has ended. Perhaps the thing can be both historical and current as long as it continues to effect our lives. In that case though, does anything ever end? Take the reported resurrection of Christ, for example. It happened two thousand years ago, and yet it is an event that effects the lives of everyone on Earth to this day. It’s both historical and current.
That’s an extreme example. This question gets trickier when we look at events that happened in the last hundred years. How you determine whether an event is simply historical or still current depends on how much those events still effect your life or, maybe, how much you want them to effect your life. To complicate things further, consider that a thousand years from now, if people talk about what has happened in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, they’ll likely talk about the events as a single event. Of course, we can’t see from the point of view of our progeny a millennium from now. We can only look at events in context and draw lines between them as seems appropriate.
These questions matter, because how you answer them will affect the way you see Selma. If you want to believe that the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the protests in Selma, Alabama, about voting rights were events of a past time that has ended, you will see Selma as a compelling and gripping historical drama with implications for today only via metaphor. If you see that same Movement, Dr. King’s work, and the protests in Selma as parts of an ongoing struggle to end discrimination and injustice based on race that continues to this day, you’ll see Selma as a rallying cry, a rousing sermon, or a work of art meant to provoke us to present action.
That is largely how Gary Ingle saw the film when he wrote the initial review of the film for Reel Spirituality and how many other progressive-minded critics are seeing it. Many of the other people in the theater with me when I saw Selma recently saw the film in the former way. As I eavesdropped on their conversations as we were all leaving, I heard some variation of “things were so different then” repeated over and over and over. Were my movie-watching compatriots stating a fact, or were they merely trying to distance themselves from what they had just seen?
Whatever their intentions, it is important first that we consider the point-of-view of the film itself. Does Selma seek to be a simple tableau faithfully recreating past events, or does it aim to be a film illuminating the time we live in now? Given the film’s focus on a conflict between law enforcement personnel and black people, its depiction of a president who curiously refuses to act citing other more pressing concerns, and its focus on the national attention-grabbing marches the SCLC organized in Selma rather than the grass-roots voter registration campaign and the perpetual arrests associated with it, I think it’s safe to say that Selma is a movie made to awaken us all to our present reality not to merely educate us about a past one. Art is made to show us the present world. Otherwise, it’s merely a recitation of history.
The film’s most striking moments are the ones when it slows down—literally, the films goes into slow motion—to show the violence perpetrated against the black residents of Selma in excruciating detail. In many ways, that slow motion is the point of the film. Selma provides an opportunity to slow down and really see both the light of Dr. King and the work of his protestors and the dark of the injustice they were facing. Selma shows how vibrantly alive and good righteousness is and how viscerally terrible and desperate racism is.
Accepting that, I understand why the people leaving the theater with me were uncomfortable. Like me, they were white, and for the first half of this film, white people are only bad. They are racist, violent, lack compassion, and selfish. The later half of the film, which begins with Dr. King calling out every person, black or white, not already helping the Civil Rights cause, asks the audience which side of this conflict they will side with. He says that even if a person is not actively opposing the protests, she or he is complicit in silence. None of Dr. King’s actual words are used in the film, but I was reminded of his famous quote (cribbed from abolitionist pastor Theodore Parker) about the “moral arc of the universe… [bending] towards justice.” Do you want to be in step with history or work against it, King challenges. Every character in the film gets to make the decision themselves. Every audience member gets to make it too as they leave and reenter the world where the Civil Rights Movement is still underway as long as discrimination persists anywhere.
King himself has to make the decision, too, because he recognizes that his allegiance is ultimately owed not to the SCLC, the protestors in Selma, or even to the nation, but to that “moral arc” and the hand that guides it. King is a Christian, and he does what he does out of submission to the call of God on his life even when his actions puzzle his supporters as well. It’s quite difficult to tell a compelling story about a character who never wavers in doing what is right. Director Ava DuVernay accomplishes this by establishing the many pressures facing Dr. King and by rooting his actions in that greater call. Dr. King is more of a knight errant on commission from his monarch in this film than he is a mere community organizer. His success is his faithfulness, and the moral uprightness of his cause is proven by history.
Or at least it will be as we are willing to take up that cause and continue it today wherever racism lingers. Will we sit idly by as others struggle for equality and fair treatment? Worse, will we actively oppose those contending for their human dignity? Or will we follow the long moral arc of the universe and work for justice in the world today?
You might also find these reviews of Selma helpful: