Just say the name "Selma," and anyone who knows the history of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s will know what you mean. It was on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in that Alabama city almost 50 years ago (March 7, 1965) that peaceful marchers were beaten back with billy clubs wielded by state and local lawmen. Captured on network television news, it would become known as "Bloody Sunday." The movie "Selma," which opened nationwide last Friday (Jan. 9), tells the story of that day and events before and after, which would prompt passage of the Voting Rights Act that summer. Sundiata Cha-Jua, a professor of history and of African-American studies at Illinois, teaches courses on both the civil rights movement and African-Americans in film. He talked about the film and the history with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
First of all, what's important to note about the film itself? And coming just a year after the Oscar-winning "12 Years a Slave," should we see it as part of a trend?
"Selma" is a powerful, pathbreaking film. It's the first feature film to do justice to the civil rights movement. It demythologizes Dr. King by presenting his flaws - infidelity, moments of doubt, and occasional authoritarian behavior - as well as his heroism. However, unlike previous directors, Ava DuVerney presents him as a superb strategist and tactician, and she shows the brotherhood between King and his leadership team.
Additionally, it captures the creative tensions between King, his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Johnson Administration. It comes close to conveying the tyranny and terrorism under which African-Americans lived.
DuVerney rearranged events for dramatic effect. So "Selma" is not historically accurate; it is, however, historically correct. It speaks a larger truth about the sociohistorical context, the events, and the relationships between African-Americans, particularly movement activists, private white citizens, and the U.S. government - local, state and federal.
As the first big-budget film on the civil rights movement, "Mississippi Burning" (1988) inaugurated a trend of telling the story from the perspective of a white protagonist and marginalizing African-Americans struggling on their own behalf. "Ghosts of Mississippi," "Heart of Dixie," "A Time to Kill" and, most recently, "Lincoln" continued that approach.
It's important to note that more African-American-oriented films were released in 1940 than in 2010. The present opening is a product of protest. With "The Butler," "12 Years a Slave," "Mandela," "Belle" and now "Selma," it appears Hollywood is awakening to the dramatic stories available in African-American and black history. Also, these films are largely the initiative of a new generation of African-American and black directors and producers.
Though "Selma" shows some of the work and sacrifice of others, King is still the central focus. Do other historical figures get more or less than their due as a result?
"Selma" goes a long way toward demythologizing King, but it struggles to fully incorporate the breadth of leadership and the roles other figures and organizations played. Despite the presence of Amelia Boynton Robinson, Annie Lee Cooper, Diane Nash, Coretta Scott King, etc., the film still minimizes the role of black women, for instance.
The differences in strategy among SCLC, NAACP, SNCC, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Urban League meant that each carved out an important sphere of influence. The NAACP specialized in lobbying and litigation. King's SCLC was the major force in the large-scale, legislation-focused mobilizations - in Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, Chicago, Memphis, etc. SNCC and CORE emphasized grassroots organizing and institution building and led the sit-ins, freedom rides, Freedom Summer voter registration, and the challenge at the 1964 Democratic Convention, which attempted to seat the interracial Mississippi Freedom delegation.
Why was Selma so important? And how was it a turning point for the movement?
Selma was pivotal. First, the passage of the Voting Rights Act provided most African-Americans access to the vote for the first time. It was a game changer. Prior to that, African-American registration was about 5 percent across the South, and only about 100 blacks held elected office nationally. Today, a greater percentage of the African-American electorate voted in the last two presidential elections than any other group, and they number over 10,000 elected officials.
Second, Selma was King's last campaign as a mainstream civil rights activist. Having won access to public accommodations and voting rights, King pivoted toward economic issues. Chicago, Memphis and the Poor Peoples Campaign represent a departure, as King pursued a democratic socialist agenda calling for a "revolution of values" and opposition to the war in Vietnam, and organized for living wages and a guaranteed annual income.
Third, after SNCC failed to seat the Mississippi Freedom delegation, they used Selma to prepare their move into nearby Lowndes County, Alabama, and their strategic shift toward building all-black political parties, which became the basis for Black Power.
Many have made a connection between the film and recent events in Ferguson and New York. But do you see the film as resonating in other ways?
"Selma" serves to remind us of the role the police have often played as brutal protectors of the status quo of racial oppression. It's hard not to see Ferguson in "Bloody Sunday."
"Selma" should also remind us of the need for preparation, training and the strategic use of protest to raise consciousness, develop self-efficacy, expose oppressive systems and challenge beneficiaries of oppression to search for their humanity.