Many of my friends have raved about "Selma," the historical drama about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s march in Selma, Alabama.
As a college student, or maybe just as a lame one, I very rarely have time to see movies, but "Selma" absolutely knocked my socks off.
I’m big on how the “craft” of a movie supports its themes through shooting styles, motifs, colors, language, etc. and Selma beautifully packages its lessons.
As I watched "Selma," I began to feel disturbed. There was something about the way the film was made, and something within its themes, which made me realize some things have not progressed since the 1960s.
With some spoilers, here are five themes raised in the movie still relevant today:
1. Lack of Representation in Congress
In one scene, King, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, James Orange and Diane Nash argue about the vicious cycle in which black voters are trapped.
Without representation, laws to protect black voters cannot be made, and without black votes, representatives to protect black interests cannot be elected.
This is relevant today, as the US is 51 percent female and 49 percent male; Congress contains a population that is 17 percent female and 83 percent male.
Racially, the US is 64 percent white, 13 percent black, 16 percent Hispanic, 5 percent Asian and 1 percent Native American, yet there are no Native American Senators. Hispanics make up 3 percent, and blacks make up 5 percent of Congress.
This means, half a century after the Civil Rights Act was passed, the majority of Congress is still chosen from the same 6 percent of the population: Caucasian, heterosexual, married males with post-college education.
There has also been a decline of women in Congress, and female seats have decreased for the first time in 30 years. At this rate, it will take 500 years to achieve gender parity in Congress.
There is clearly a disproportionate distribution in Congress; it is alarming that issues pertaining to growing minority groups may never reach the floor because of a lack of representatives who could advocate for them
2. The Obstacle of Pride
Pride is undoubtedly still a deterrent of progress today. Leaders and citizens alike today are still afraid, unmotivated and/or skeptical to act due to pride.
It is puzzling and counterintuitive that (some) leaders act not in the best interests of the people, but in the selfish hope to preserve their positions, as is shown in the movie.
President Lyndon B. Johnson continually parries Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s requests for legislation to protect black voters, and this prolongs the civil rights protests in Selma.
Instead of signing the one bill to end the dispute between black voters and white Alabama officials, LBJ’s lack of action indirectly leads to the riots, beatings and even murders that occur later in the film.
“I’ve got bigger fish to fry,” LBJ insists, citing the Vietnam War and his war on poverty. “You care about poverty, too, don’t you?” What LBJ’s inaction boiled down to was his fear of making an unpopular decision and threatening his chances for election in 1964.
King doubts his wife’s suggestion that Malcolm X speak when she visits him in jail. He accuses her of being smitten with Malcolm X, and resists considering her advice because he doesn’t trust Malcolm X, who had insulted King’s nonviolent approach.
Coretta Scott King reminds her husband they are all on the same side. Once again, pride is a roadblock; even a great leader like King felt the sting of ego.
As the situation in Selma develops, Alabama Governor George Wallace appeals to the president to “solve” the situation in Selma for him. LBJ reminds Wallace it is in his power as a state governor to correct the voting registration restrictions.
Wallace shrugs off the suggestion and claims, “It’s not like that,” and he would like to run for higher office in the future. Once again, a leader did not want to make an unpopular decision that would threaten his position.
Interestingly, the scriptwriters frame each occurrence with the same language and words to magnify how repetitive these situations are, and to suggest to the audience it is ridiculous these leaders will not see the magnitude of their inaction.
Each visit King makes to the Oval Office is nearly identical; each scene is shot with the same white, bright wash of light and has a consistent wardrobe (for both men). The filming style, however, does change as the movie progresses.
Especially during Kings’ initial visits, the camera switches back and forth from a full, close-up shot of King to an equally exclusive shot of LBJ as the two men parry, perhaps to symbolize their polarized positions. Frames later in the film include both men as they speak, symbolizing the slow alignment of their actions.
The same polarized shooting style is used when Wallace visits the President and asks him to take his side on opposing King. It’s also interesting to note that LBJ asks Wallace the same question King posed to LBJ: “How do you want to be remembered?"
3. The Danger of Ignorance
Knowledge is a civic duty; as a citizen, or as a member of any group, one should be informed and involved with contemporary issues. Watching a movie like "Selma" could be considered doing just that.
Citizenship is not a privilege that may be revoked based on awareness, per se; it is a right that comes with responsibilities, and some of those include educating oneself about social issues.
The media has the greatest influence on what -- and how -- current events are portrayed to the public. King and the Selma protestors benefitted from news coverage, promising to be “on the front page” every day until their demands were met. And, news coverage ultimately led to a migration of Americans to Selma to stand with the marchers.
Today, young people in America (specifically, ages 18-29) are keeping up with a different kind of media. #JusticeforTrayvon, #BlackLivesMatter and #SameLove are all hashtags with which social-media-savvy young adults are familiar.
However, the majority of young people are severely undereducated about the issues to which these hashtags pertain. Americans in their 20s are most likely to absorb breaking news, but not to follow up on developing situations, and that’s a problem.
With ignorance comes passivity and from passivity, a lack of progress.
How many more riots in Ferguson must occur to divert young Americans’ attention away from impersonal #PrayForFerguson tweets and toward taking definitive stances on police-citizen relationships? How many times does “ISIS” have to trend on Twitter before we decide it’s time to look up what the name even stands for?
The first step toward change is knowledge.
4. History Repeats Itself
It’s intriguing that "Selma" was released at a time like this, when police brutality, gay rights issues, racial tensions and foreign conflict are in the public eye more than ever.
Watching the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson and the state troopers’ force against protestors bring to mind contemporary cases, such as those of Matthew Shepard, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner.
The Bible has been cited to defend anti-interracial marriage, segregation and slavery. It is also used to support heterosexual marriage laws.
"Selma’s" release could be a deliberate parallel that brings attention to a current civil issue -- marriage equality -- by framing it through the Civil Rights Movement. Keep in mind, Brad Pitt and Oprah Winfrey, both public supporters of same-sex marriage, were producers of "Selma."
In the movie, the opponents of voting rights are cast as overtly ignorant, hateful and one-dimensional Alabama hicks. It’s blatantly obvious how viewers are to consider the opposition to "Selma’s" protagonists: inane, crude and hateful.
But, lest we forget, history repeats itself, and America once again finds itself on the verge of several civil divides: rights for same-sex marriage and police-citizen interaction, to name a few.
5. Great Leaders Are Human, and So Are We
The makers of "Selma" skillfully show us the human qualities of King: his indecision, uncertainty, adultery are as equally a part of his character as his eloquence, bravery and leadership. Scriptwriters choose to reveal King’s affairs – and not just a token hint at one – in a way that is gentle, but not glancing.
The film humanizes, but doesn’t vilify, an immortal hero and encourages we are also capable of shining in our moments. Great leaders are neither invincible nor impossible to become. Moral absolutism is put in its place, tactfully. A perfect moral record is not a prerequisite for greatness; courage, selflessness and good will are.
Supporting characters have moments of brilliant, unadulterated glory; they sacrifice themselves, protect others and defend ideals of nonviolence in the face of great adversity.
Their moments, in the film and in history, are equally as impactful as King’s actions. Without the greatness of individuals, great leaders would have little of significance to lead.
Great leaders are not immune to temptation, but hopefully, they overcome it. "Selma" reminds us the greatest of us are human, and the most human of us are capable of greatness.
A bit about this next blurb: My boyfriend, who is African-American, also watched "Selma." The next point is pulled from his commentary and our discussions.
6. “Black Americans have forgotten what they’ve gone through.”
I think we [as a race] aren’t remembering it in the right way, not remembering the significance of the past.
America does a good job of distracting us [black people] from our history with the present: media, celebrities, shoes, fashion, etc. It’s easy to absorb pop culture (rappers perpetuating a lifestyle they don’t really live, listening to certain music, Jordans) because it is the closest thing to culture we can claim for ourselves.
We don’t know our roots, so we have no legacy to claim. We’re left with the culture we are given, which distracts us from who we are.
As black Americans, it’s our responsibility to seek knowledge because it’s not going to be handed to us. Even in the education system, we spend so much time on a period of history that spans 100 years [Colonization to the Civil War], and then we grant a month to a race that has been enslaved in America for 300 years.
There is a sense of greatness most black people feel as a race, but they don’t know what it’s connected to. I don’t know my history as a black man well enough, but this movie made me want to learn more.
And, that call is on black people who don’t care to learn from where they’ve come, commercialized America, the media, news report slants, things that wash out the dignity of men in the Civil Rights Movement.
It's disrespectful to see tweets like #MLKdiedforthis. It’s hard to imagine America in the 1950s with segregated schools, “whites only” signs at restaurants and things like “colored” bathrooms. Life in America today is so vastly different, it’s almost as if that time never existed — and that is dangerous to think.
Minority Americans (such as myself) forget the voting protection is a new privilege, just half a century old. This privilege, which "Selma" vividly reminds us, was bled and fought for, and yet, voter turnout amongst young Americans (of all races) was 13 percent in the last election.
Seriously, go see this movie. It’s a beautifully presented educational experience, and a sobering reminder of the legacy Americans of all races continue. If we, as one nation, under God, indivisible, do not know what we’ve come from, we will not know where and why we are going forward.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Elite Daily.