Selma’s Communal Commitment to Justice

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In the real world, justice is often achieved through mundane means: committees, courtrooms, conversation. In the movie world, however, it’s usually won by a guy in spandex and a cape. So consider Selma a rarity, not only for the attention it gives to procedural history (covering things like logistics and strategy), but also for the way it emphasizes the communal aspect of justice seeking. Sure, there’s a hero here – David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King, Jr. – but even he is sidelined at times in favor of a more holistic sense of community.

The movie, recently nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, dramatizes the three marches staged by King and other civil rights activists in 1965, with the intent of pressuring President Lyndon Johnson to introduce voting rights legislation on behalf of ostracized African-Americans. It’s a stirring picture, directed by Ava DuVernay, with an eye and ear for quiet grace notes that other filmmakers might bulldoze over in their rush to stage Loud Inspirational Moments.

The movie’s treatment of King is particularly notable. There are scenes, especially those of his speeches, in which the movie clearly ennobles its central figure. Yet the film also takes time to acknowledge the infidelity that has tarnished his legacy. And in the frequent moments of King in doubt (Oyelowo plays him as a thoughtful and often flummoxed man), we get the overall impression that King is burdened by the weight of the challenge he’s taken on and often unsure of how best to meet it.

What Selma stresses, crucially, is that King didn’t meet it on his own. We spend time with the likes of Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), who doggedly tries to register to vote but gets turned away because of discriminatory technicalities each time. We come to know the other pastors and activists of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who formed King’s inner circle and developed the group’s tactics. We meet the Boston priest (Jeremy Strong) who joins the march in Selma after King has called upon the conscience of the entire nation in a televised speech. The result is that when this crowd locks arms and marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to demand voting reform, it isn’t only King’s face we know - it’s also the priest’s, Annie’s, and the faces of many others.

Indeed, there are times when King’s face isn’t on the screen at all, yet the movie forges ahead anyway. Three marches took place in Selma, the first of which King didn’t even attend. Rather than excise that fact (or alter it), DuVernay devotes significant screen time to a sequence that doesn’t even involve her “hero.” Selma understands that the main character here is not the man, but the movement.

At a time of increasing secularism, it’s also interesting to note how blatantly Selma depicts this political movement as being rooted in the Christian faith. The movie is steeped with pastors, for one thing, and a good number of King’s speeches take place in church. Often faith comes to the fore at King’s darkest moments, whether it’s when he and others have been thrown in jail and a fellow pastor quotes Matthew 6:27, or when King ends a particularly stressful night by placing a phone call to gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who offers a soft rendition of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord."

And then there is the answer King gives to the federal official who tries to warn him away from leading the third march, claiming the government has intelligence that his life is in danger. “I’m not focusing on what I want today,” King says, “I’ll be focusing on what God wants.” Selma, likewise, focuses not on King, but on the communal effort it took to achieve a monumental piece of legislation such as the Voting Rights Act. It’s a fitting tribute to a movement that was propelled by the phrase “We shall overcome.”

- Josh Larsen is editor of Think Christian. He also writes about movies at LarsenOnFilm and is the co-host of Filmspotting. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.