Selma is a fascinating movie. Anyone with a sense of civil rights history in the United States has heard of the city of Selma, Alabama. I knew that there was a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama some time in the nineteen sixties. It had something to do with Dr. Martin Luther King.
I know that there were many sacrifices of life and many courageous people who took part in the civil rights struggles in the United States. However, the way the history of this struggle is presented in the mainstream media is that Dr. King made a few great speeches, took part in some nonviolent protests, and in the end the white people who ran this Country made a considered decision to grant equality and the right to vote to minorities. Anti-civil rights violence is a series of aberrations which were righted through the courageous efforts of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
That is not what this movie presents. This movie presents many things which I was already aware of: the FBI was surveilling and attempting to discredit Dr. King, the virulent opposition to civil rights in the South, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference worked for civil rights.
That is the thing, we are always hearing disparate facts, good and bad and indifferent, about the civil rights movement and United States history in general. These facts are rarely put together in a coherent narrative. First this happened, it was a a bad thing. Then that happened, it was an indifferent thing. There was a victory here, that was good. And so on. A bunch of facts, a small narrative here and there, and we have a sanitized, management approved version of history. This movie, Selma, reminded me of the quote attributed to Woodrow Wilson about “writing history with lightning.”
I felt, watching this movie, that the march toward civil rights was not a point on the inevitable march of reason and justice in the United States, as it always seems to be presented; it was a victory brought on through the hard work and sacrifices of people willing to put their lives on the line. It was a hard won fight wherein strategy and perseverance won out over power and prejudice. I learned something from this movie.
Though I was not alive to witness the events of this film, I have seen in the last several years that the battles are not over. Selma celebrates the events that lead up to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I was alive to witness the Supreme Court gut this particular piece of legislation in 2012. The film portrays the murder of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson by an Alabama State Trooper. A little research revealed that a grand jury failed to indict that trooper for this murder. Need I mention Darren Wilson or Daniel Pantaleo?
This movie made me angry. The idea of a brutal and ignorant system that dehumanizes and destroys wide swathes of people for no other reason than their skin color makes me rage. The events depicted made me forget that the movie began with a bomb that killed 4 little girls. It was jarring and disgusting and sad, but later scenes in the film caused me to forget all about that opening scene. It is hard for me to see all of the progress we have made in the United States since 1965. I have to wonder if anything has really changed at all.