The quiet chatter of four small girls seconds before the church explodes in flames.
Matthew 6:26 whispered in a prison cell to remind Martin Luther King that God had a plan for him.
The charging shadow of a state trooper on horseback bringing his whip down on a fleeing protester.
The savage beating of a preacher from Boston.
The tortured expressions of King sitting in the shadows as Mahalia Jackson sings the gospel to him.
These are the enduring images for me of Ava DuVernay’s Selma, a film that should certainly stir up conversations about freedom, power, and race relations in a world still reeling from Ferguson and Staten Island, and other locales around the world. While some found 42 to be watered down and others found 12 Years A Slave too brutal to watch, Selma strikes a blend of realism and emotional chords to make us recognize the danger, the tragedies, and the sacrifice of those who have fought the fight- who fight the fight.
David Oyelowo, who seems to have risen out of nowhere but who actually appears in The Butler, Interstellar, Lincoln, and Jack Reacher, is a rising star as he presents MLK. His portrayal of the tortured leader, sure of his role in the fight for civil rights but struggling with how it will work in the end, is the powerful catalyst that keeps us engaged in the quieter moments of the film. It helps that Carmen Ejogo emits quiet strength as Coretta Scott King, the yin to MLK’s Yang, the woman keeping him anchored to his family and yet pushing quietly behind the scenes toward real change.
From a plot perspective, the film runs from the acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize to the speech at the capitol in Birmingham, AL, with stops along the way in Washington, D.C., with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), and in conversations outside of the King inner circle with the likes of George Wallace (Tim Roth) and J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker). It chronicles the political roadblocks King faced as he balanced the pressures from the black leadership to fight and the white leadership to desist (or at least, slow), and the actual, physical confrontations that his protesters had with police at places like the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
While some films settle for glamorizing the physical confrontations, and others just talk about the conflict, Selma ties the chords together in a way that they’re not just juxtaposed, but they are both/and. After the death of one of the young men who has come to love King’s work and marched with him, Paul Webb’s script has Oyelowo deliver a speech that threatened to move me to tears. [For the record, I felt the explosion of the church coming – and that almost caused me to be sick in the middle of the theater. It was that powerful.]
“Who murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson? Every white lawman who abuses the law to terrorize. Every white politician who feeds on prejudice and hatred. Every white preacher who preaches the bible and stays silent before his white congregation. Every Negro man and woman who stands by without joining this fight as their brothers and sisters are brutalized, humiliated, and ripped from this Earth.”
Here, DuVernay and Webb are clear to show the actual conflict with both blacks and whites of the day, but the emphasis (which is mine) sticks with me as a white preacher who seeks to follow Jesus Christ. As the pastor from Boston says, “When Rev. King called us as pastors to do something, I just had to come.” It’s a reminder that if we say we’re about justice, we have to speak to justice but we also have to do something. Micah 6:8 “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” It’s what MLK called for, it’s what he did, and it’s what he inspired others to do as well. We can’t just be inspired though, we have to move – because this isn’t over.
But Selma also presents us with options for moving, and varying degrees of success for those options. We have Oyelowo’s King and we have Nigel Hatch’s Malcolm X, and several members of both ‘sides’ of the black response. But, as I survey the landscape of responses to injustice and violence, I find myself often closer to King and yet in the middle. And the film presents me with that voice as well, through Stephan James’ John Lewis, as someone who must come to appreciate King’s ways but recognizes that violence will simply bring more violence. Again, in art and life, we are often presented with either/or, and DuVernay and Webb present us with both/and. We should be moved, but the decisions we make about how to move are left to us.
I recognize that King was first a preacher, first a man with the quiet dream to teach and raise a family, who was pushed out of that safe envelope by the recognition of his call. I see his call and his dream tied together in his understanding of God’s will for his life, whether it’s kneeling on the bridge to pray, or standing in the midst of the racist Birmingham system and proclaiming, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; he is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; he hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword; his truth is marching on.”
The truth marches on, but what will we do about it?