Stained glass windows, children dressed in white singing on the stairs and then the blast and four little girls perish in the rubble. This is one of the opening scenes in “Selma,” a new movie brought to us by director Ava DuVernay, Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt, among others. The scene refers to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, a terrorist response to Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. DuVernay offers a tapestry rich in the events, emotions and politics that swirled around the life of Martin Luther King preceding and during civil rights protests for the right to vote which occurred in Selma, Alabama in March of 1965.
I had the privilege to be at the advanced screening of “Selma” at the beautiful Castro Theater in San Francisco yesterday. So advanced was this screening DuVernay commented that the film isn’t finished yet. Some lighting, color and other issues need to touch up before the film is actually complete. Ours was only the second showing and it was presented by the San Francisco Film Society and Paramount Pictures.
DuVernay also pointed out that the movie is not a documentary and some of the “facts” may have been polished up in order to create a mood or to make a point. Regardless of any rearrangement or touch up, this is a moving, powerful depiction of one of the major Civil Rights Movement’s greatest accomplishments: a mass march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, when thousands of marchers, from poor sharecroppers to Harry Belafonte, Dick Gregory and Joan Baez, walked fifty-four miles to get down on their knees to pray for the right to vote for black Americans. This final march was the culmination of three marches beginning with “Bloody Sunday,” a march where over 550 blacks were stopped at the Edmond Pettis Bridge in Selma by law enforcement officials wielding clubs, horses, tear gas, guns, and whips.
I remember that march clearly. Watching it from my dormitory at the University of California, Berkeley, I was horrified that such an event could occur in the United States because black people wanted to vote. After “Bloody Sunday,” my history teacher came into class long enough to say class was cancelled for the next week or more. He was going to Selma and he didn’t know if or when he would be back. It was the first time I realized, now that I was eighteen, I too could go to Selma. Instead, a month later when Martin Luther King called for white volunteers from northern colleges and universities to come to the South to register black voters backed by the Voter Rights Act of 1965, I answered the call. The woman sitting next to me in the theater must have wondered why I bawled through the “Bloody Sunday” scenes. I had two responses to the film. The first, how could I not pack a bag and join the throng moving along that southern highway or not join the movement for this monumental change in America. The second thought, I must have been crazy to join the Movement after seeing the happenings at Selma.
After the viewing Ava DuVernay, Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo (Martin Luther King) participated in a panel discussing the movie and their parts in it. Oyelowo stated that his journey to play King was a spiritual experience. This was not just a movie to these folks, but an affirmation that righteousness prevailed at Selma.
I was waiting for this conversation and I had a question if they took comments from the audience. Here we had a movie that cried out the importance of the right to vote and the fact that people were willing to die for that vote. Surely someone would talk about how the movie might be used to engender an interest in voting. How would the movers and shakers on the stage before us use this perfect vehicle to inspire Americans of all colors to utilize our gift from the Founding Fathers? How could it put into motion voter registration drives and political activity? How could it save us from the morass of reasons we should not vote?
No one said a word. I was disappointed.
Don’t let my disappointment stop you from seeing the movie, though. Selma was a turning point in the struggle for the right to vote. It is thrilling and it provokes serious thought. It is enjoyable and important. I just hope that viewers don’t miss the point in all that thrill, thought and enjoyment. “Don’t let no body turn me round” was one of the freedom songs from the Movement. This movie could be the beginning of a new movement for the right to vote with where the people of the United States refuse to be turned around or away from the voter booth. Teachers and other community leaders can use it to engender interest in voting. I just wish those folks on the stage had mentioned voting as one of the thrusts of “Selma.”
Don’t just SEE the movie, register and vote. The vote is worth dying for.
Cast list: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1020072/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm.