Lest we forget why we commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday today, we must understand that it is more than about one man, but about an entire movement for civil rights. King is recognized as its most significant leader, but the leaders were many and it took thousands of men, women, and children to effect change in our nation’s laws.
So often, college students of this generation do not truly understand what is meant when they are told “people gave their lives for the simple act of voting.” The new film Selma helps to illustrate that struggle for this generation, but today as we think about the meaning of the King holiday, it is worth being reminded that those risks were very real as seen in this original news clip from “Bloody Sunday,” the first of the Selma marches that took place on March 7, 1965.
The new civil rights film Selma opened on Christmas Day and by January 9th will appear in theaters across the country. In Selma, director Ava DuVernay examines what the film’s official website describes as “the story of a movement [that] chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition. The epic march from Selma to Montgomery culminated in President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant victories for the civil rights movement.”
As previously discussed in this blog, the American South has consistently provided Hollywood with dramatic material since the dawn of film. For much of that history, movies have romanticized the Old South and often portrayed slavery as a benevolent institution. Last year’s Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave, helped to right that ship by showing the brutality of slavery in all its forms.
This is not the case with Selma where DuVernay has focused her lens not only on well-known black heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., but on the real heroes of the movement–local people whose grassroots organizing and willingness to march and subject themselves to violence resulted in changes to our nation’s laws.
Early reviews of the film are either glowing (see the NYT review) or have criticized how the film misrepresented President Lyndon B. Johnson’s role. Joseph Califano, LBJ’s top assistant for domestic affairs from 1965-1969 argues that the Selma march was Johnson’s idea and in his review of the film takes DuVernay’s version to task. DuVernay has responded with vehemence, tweeting that the suggestion that the Selma march was LBJ’s idea is “jaw dropping and offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it so.”