Why Selma Matters

Why Selma Matters

Film allows us to reflect on perceptions and prejudices, and how it feels to confront them.

Fifty years ago, the civil rights movement was in full swing. There were generational divisions in that movement, differences about the best approach, and critiques about a lack of any strategy (or a failure to hear the strategy as articulated). And a man was ascending to occupy a permanent place in the American psyche, a man whose birthday we honor on January 19: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the new movie Selma, director Ava DuVernay brilliantly explores the essence of the man and the movement. DuVernay carefully portrays the very human side of the civil rights heroes we have come to know and love. She explores the power dynamics present in any movement for social justice. And she inspires and empowers her audience with a simple message: that ordinary people making extraordinary decisions and sacrifices have the power to shape history.

It is a message with great resonance today, a time when thousands of Americans have taken to the streets to protest the events in Ferguson and Staten Island, Cleveland and Los Angeles, Phoenix and Brooklyn.

Such is the beauty of the arts.

Movies, and the arts more generally, are essential tools in the drive to change this country’s racial narrative. We do not know the dialogue that actually transpired between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, and we never will. What we do know is that Officer Wilson’s perceptions reflect a wider problem in the way people of color are seen, and talked about, in America today.

In his grand jury testimony, Wilson said he “felt like a five-year-old holding on to Hulk Hogan” in describing his fateful encounter with Brown, and referred to him as a “demon.” That image is hard to reconcile with the 18-year-old boy who had lots of friends and a loving family, who enjoyed music, recently graduated from high school, and was preparing to start college.

The power of film helps us unpack this perception problem; by putting us in the scene, we are able to experience the fear, the anger, the joy, and the exhilaration of the struggle for social justice in real time. Film allows us to reflect on perceptions and prejudices, and how it feels to confront them—the first step in healing the wounds they open.

DuVernay does this masterfully in her movie. We in the audience feel the visceral shock of learning that four little girls were brutally murdered when a Ku Klux Klan bomb exploded in their Birmingham, Alabama, church. And we walk alongside John Lewis, Hosea Williams, Amelia Boynton Robinson, little Lynda Blackmon Lowery, and hundreds of other black men, women, and children on March 7, 1965. We’re right there with them as they’re brutally beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday.

Through DuVernay's film, we experience firsthand what biased belief systems feel like for the mother of a child slain by police, for the weary and non-violent activist beaten with a baton and left for dead, for a nation that had lived in denial and that suddenly witnessed with jarring clarity precisely how racism and hatred can break bones, but never break a people.

DuVernay’s film is a stark reminder that the movement being built today will only succeed if all of us pick up the banner of racial justice hoisted aloft by Dr. King and by the hundreds of others who were with him on that long march. In Selma, we see that those who went before were just as ordinary, as uncertain, and as fearful as we are.

The Open Society Foundations support the arts as part of its racial justice work. We proudly support projects like the American debut of Riot from Wrong, a new documentary about the death of a young man of color at the hands of London police, and how youth in that community responded—a movie with great lessons for the communities trying to pick up the pieces in Missouri and on Long Island. We are also supporting a tour of the new film Freedom Summer, a documentary about the activists who converged on Mississippi to shake the white supremacist power structure to its core.

Arts is, of course, just one aspect of our work to advance racial justice. We are involved in ongoing efforts to reduce mass incarceration, to improve life outcomes for black men and boys, to close the racial wealth gap, and to change harsh school discipline policies that disproportionately affect children of color. Following the events in Ferguson and Staten Island this fall, we have made additional investments to help develop a nationwide database on police practices, including police stops and the use of force, as well as to help community groups in Missouri advance initiatives to promote police accountability.

But it is impossible to overstate the importance of the arts as a vehicle for narrative change. President Obama’s decision to screen Selma at the White House helps show how today’s politics, and a burgeoning new movement, are buttressed by connecting to our history. When we are disconnected from our history, we are disconnected from our future.

When Common accepted the Golden Globe for “Glory,” a song featured in the film, he thanked DuVernay for using the arts to “elevate us all and bring us together.” He also had this to say:

The first day I stepped on the set of Selma, I began to feel like this was bigger than a movie. As I got to know the people of the civil rights movement, I realized I am the hopeful black woman who was denied her right to vote. I am the caring white supporter who was killed on the front lines of freedom. I am the unarmed black kid who maybe needed a hand but instead was given a bullet. I am the two fallen police officers, murdered in the line of duty. Selma has awakened my humanity.

Such is the power of the arts.

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3 Comments

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Now it is more important than ever to heed the message of Selma...we must not ever forget!

Such kind of articles and movies inspire each nation to wake and start fighting for freedom of speech, race, color and social justice. This article circulate nice message to us

For me, this reflects a much bigger issue. As an animal, we are all capable of dehumanizing groups outside our "tribe", with horrific, cruel effect. We see it every day inside and outside our immediate world. It is something each of us has to be aware of and control.

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