The transatlantic At the Movies with Jason Heap of UnitedCoR and Susan Corbett of the Liverpool Humanist Group and the British Humanist Association is back! In celebration and honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we’re discussing Selma.
Susan Corbett: In 1869, Congress passed the 15th Amendment giving African-American men the right to vote. Yet, in 1940 only 3% of eligible men in the south were registered to vote. The racial segregation “Jim Crow” laws were mandatory for anyone who couldn’t prove a 5th grade education and were used to keep African-Americans from voting.
Jason Heap: I appreciated that Selma helped to put this into historical perspective from the onset to help transport the viewer into the context of the Civil and Voting Rights struggle. The film opens with scenes of King and his wife preparing to receive the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. However, the film also drew me in by shifting between the Nobel scenes with four innocent children walking down the steps of their church, having conversations about their hair. This served as a staunch reminder of the price paid by innocent peoples’ lives during the 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. The bombing scenes were also intertwined with scenes of courageous activist Annie Lee Cooper being denied by the bigoted registrar when she was attempting to register herself to vote.
SC: Selma was then set in early-1965, when African-Americans were tired of being given the run around by racist local officials, and groups such as SCLC and SNCC had organized non-violent protests. The film shows—in graphic detail—the horrors and the violence perpetrated on the African-American community because they were vocal about having their constitutional rights unlawfully withheld. I actually felt as if I was present at the protest march from Selma to Montgomery, to show the desire of African-American citizens to exercise their constitutional rights, in defiance of segregationist repression. I now understand why this march became known as “Bloody Sunday”: the film showed the unarmed marchers as they were brutally attacked at the Edmund Pettus Bridge by law enforcement officers, some beaten to within an inch of their lives and left unconscious in the road.
JH: I agree with you here. The way the historical plot was presented, I didn’t feel as if too much “artistic license” was taken. I felt as if I was in King’s presence; that I was in the crowds who came to listen to him; that I attended the funeral of Jimmie Lee Jackson who was gunned-down by the Alabama State troopers; or that I was with the demonstrators who were in fear of repercussions from extremist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.
SC: I found Selma to be more of a sad incitement on some people’s choices rather than entertainment. It’s hard for me to understand how so much hatred and abuse could be directed towards another human being, purely because of the colour of their skin. I grew up in the UK where children of every race and religion studied at the same schools, without having to think about “integration.” A person’s neighbours could be Black- or Asian-British but it was not our culture for us to think about treating them any differently than White-British citizens. Yes, we noticed the differences, but we celebrated them not reviled them.
JH: In the American context, not everyone felt that way. King once said, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetuate it.” Selma showed how Unitarian Universalist minster Rev. James Reeb answered King’s call to action, and was murdered in support of a cause that asked people to put aside their visible difference to achieve a greater good. Selma also demonstrated that King could no longer count on his government allies to achieve the larger goal, but that he and his followers needed to work with like-minded people. The film ends with King’s “How Long, Not Long” speech, and reveals what happens to some of the key people in the future, demonstrating the impact they would ultimately have for social justice.
SC: In light of what we’re reading about in the UK regarding the current state of relations in the US, such as the Ferguson situation last November, the lessons highlighted in Selma are relevant even today…disappointingly, 50 years after the event.
JH: Yes, and it’s a shame that Selma didn’t receive the awards it deserved.
SC/JH: With a great combination of British and American cast: classically-trained David Oyelowo starring as MLK, Carmen Ejogo at Coretta S. King, Tim Roth as Gov. George Wallace, Oprah Winfrey portraying Annie Lee Cooper, we give Selma two thumbs up and 10 stars!