CINEMUSINGS: Selma and the Message of Martin Luther King

January 19th, 2015 | Cinemusings, Reflection

Marchers in the streets cry out to be recognized as human beings. Militarized police forces wield guns, batons, and tear gas against peaceful demonstrators. Citizens call on their leaders for justice. These images describe periods in American history as distant as 50 years ago and as recent as five weeks ago. We see them both in faded history books and in our Twitter feeds. It’s rare for a film to sit so perfectly at the intersection of our past and present, and when it happens it’s bound to have a profound impact.

On January 9th a group of more than twenty Ecclesians went to see Ava DuVernay’s film Selma, a dramatic retelling of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights Campaign led by civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The film tells the story of how King became involved in the movement to guarantee the right to vote for African Americans in the South who, while technically allowed to vote, were blocked from exercising that right by Jim Crow segregation: laws that made voting virtually impossible, if not outright dangerous, for black citizens to attempt. Throughout the film the movement grows from a handful of passionate organizers to a force of thousands who would ultimately march five days over a distance of 50 miles to make their cry for equality known to the world, often in the face of violent opposition.

At the center of this story we find King (played masterfully by David Oyelowo), a man motivated by love and faith in the Christian Gospel to break the chains of white supremacy and segregation in America, who many times spoke hard truths to some of the most powerful men in the world. We see a man who also often struggled with fear, doubt, and sometimes his own moral failings in the fight to eradicate racism and establish equality for African-Americans.

Such a layered, honest portrayal of King is rarely seen in popular culture, so it was refreshing to see King presented so bravely by the filmmakers, without any of the posthumous mythology that has come to surround him. He is presented as a person who faced more than his share of dark nights of the soul but remained steadfast in his calling to “redeem the soul of America,” to quote the motto of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

In Selma we also meet King’s inner circle of civil rights organizers who advised and stood beside King, in both marches and jail cells. These historical figures—including John Lewis, Andrew Young, Ralph David Abernathy, Hosea Williams, Diane Nash, and Coretta Scott King—deserve feature films of their own, but are established in Selma as dynamic characters that, while not always in agreement on the means by which to achieve their goals, were nevertheless bound by the same conviction to stand up for the humanity and fair treatment of black people.

In a culture that often elevates its heroes to legendary status, it is important to see honest portrayals of the men and women who fought for change throughout history that may serve to motivate and inspire people today to take up the fight for justice in their own lives. We can be encouraged in the knowledge that flawed people can have a tremendous impact in the world if they remain faithful to their convictions. This is demonstrated repeatedly in the lives of men and women throughout scripture, from Moses to the apostle Paul, and we can see that in the life of King and his fellow civil rights leaders as well.

Though the story takes place half a century ago in a small town in Alabama, Selma contains powerful messages relevant to audiences in 2015. In the discussions that followed the Cineminklings screening, many people remarked on the similarities between the struggle of the civil rights demonstrators in Selma to the more recent demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri and New York following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The film served as a reminder to some that the march for equality has not ended yet and the work King started half a century ago remains, in many ways, unfinished.

As we reflect on Martin Luther King Day, artistic works like Selma are helpful to remember King in more nuanced terms. King is well-known for his message of nonviolence and love for those who fought against him, but was—and is—a polarizing figure. The political leadership of the 1960s were often frustrated by King’s persistent calls for equality, often chiding King for his refusal to wait or fall in line on broader, “big tent” political issues—dramatized in Selma in King’s interactions with President Lyndon Johnson.

King’s views were seen as offensive to many in 1965, and remain offensive still to some today. It’s not hard to imagine that in 2015 King would likely be accused by contemporary critics of “playing the race card” or being an “outside agitator.” King boldly demanded justice from the most powerful men in the world, challenged hypocrisies at the core of American society, and criticized white Christians who stood silent in the face of injustice. Claims such as these will never be seen as anything but threatening to those in power. As King wrote in his famous Letter From A Birmingham Jail, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

While King’s message is often reduced to inspirational quotes or convenient sound bytes, it’s important to see him as a man motivated by love but relentless in his fight for justice. He was a man who followed in the steps of Jesus by preaching love, mercy and forgiveness, but also by flipping a table when he needed to. Selma is a film that paints a portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a manner befitting of his legacy. He was a revolutionary figure whose message remains revolutionary today. This is the man we should remember, whose call for equality we should all echo until his dream is realized.