Release Date: December 25th, 2014
Director: Ava DuVernay | MPAA Rating: PG-13 | LeavittLens Rating: 8/10
In a world full of explanations, inundated with reasoning and argumentation, it remains metaphor that speaks most directly to our hearts, rattling our individualized cages and opening our eyes to truth otherwise hidden. As Denise Levertow puts it, “Straight to the point can ricochet, unconvincing,” but metaphor and analogy pierce where direct argument misses, becoming “stepping-stones” to truth. We find this rings resoundingly in Ava DuVernay’s 2014 biopic Selma, a film which takes the setting of its climax–the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama–and makes it a metaphor, connecting history to present with a truth that illuminates the caverns of the modern American soul.
The movie opens in medias res, with the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech of one Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964. We are not given details of his life leading up to this award, and the rest of the film proceeds to focus only on a microcosm of his wide-ranging work and life. It follows King’s advocacy for equal voting rights in the South, where–despite the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964–segregation and racist voting restrictions remain crippling for the African-American population. It tracks the inner workings of the peaceful movements, the behind-the-scenes diplomacy, and the genuine horror of egregious dehumanization and murder that filled the streets 1960’s, all leading up to a seminal march. This small window of time seems intentional, fitting in the wake of recent reminders that such systemic issues persist in our modern world; indeed, this same sort of hatred lives with us two decades into the 21st century. This is certainly one way Selma works as a metaphorical bridge: it brings our history to our present, opening the eyes of each viewer to making crucial connections they may otherwise overlook, and providing visuals that look strikingly familiar today.
While much more could be told about King’s life in the film, the intentional limitation is noteworthy, and indicative of what makes the film largely successful. It is highly focused throughout, a feat within a genre that is often bogged down by the broad scope of events that fill the lives of noteworthy historical figures. In this condensed timeframe, DuVernay is able to bring to the screen a more intimate picture of a man whose image has often transcended his vital humanity as a leader and martyr for human rights. We learn about the whole person, pivoting from his thundering and powerful sermons to his strained marriage, from his inspired and virtuous leadership to his broken nights questioning his entire ability to lead. Of course, DuVernay’s vision is helped immensely by a seamless central performance from David Oyelowo. He seems to have been born to play MLK; he bears a resemblance, and throughout the film his voice quivers and projects with the same trademark passion. Such intimacy also carries into the supporting performances, to the degree where some of the most memorable moments and lines of dialogue actually come from other characters: Carmen Ejogo shines as King’s wife, Coretta; Lakeith Stanfield turns in a terrific performance as Jimmie Lee Jackson; and Andre Holland stands out as Andrew Young. In this way, the film bridges the gap between man and myth, revealing that–while he was essential to the success of the movement–King was surrounded by remarkable men and women along the way, and their actions proved critical in the broader civil rights movement.
Ultimately the work of using a story centered on a bridge in order to bridge to our present era perhaps finds its pinnacle in a powerful early scene in the film, speaking to many of our underlying philosophical faults. In a meeting with the President (Lyndon B. Johnson), King voices the pain and oppression of blacks in the south, particularly when it comes to voting rights. Johnson’s initial response is distancing himself: he reminds King of all that he has done in his signing of the Civil Rights Act, and mentions that the issue of voting is not as pressing at the given moment. He fails to see, despite King’s clear explanation, the ripple effect of stripped voting rights on the rest of society; indeed, without the the right to affect the balance of power, black men and women do not have the ability to change their circumstances in any structural category. In this way, DuVernay shines light on a fundamental problem with modern moral decision-making and policy-creating: we live in an age of attempted autonomy, believing we are responsible strictly for our own actions.
As children of the Enlightenment, we often consider ourselves proudly as the purveyors of our own destiny, responsible only for and answering only to the self. The result is a culture that absolves itself of participation in broader broken systems and evil actions, on all ends of the political spectrum; we all tend to deny the ripple effect of our decision making. For instance, following the exposure of sexual misconduct from numerous Hollywood stalwarts like Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, and so forth in recent years, our culture has done an excellent job of vilifying those individuals for their actions (and rightly so). But it seemed very few were willing to do the much harder work of identifying the ways in which we collectively have contributed to the media they made and the situations and power given to them. At large we were unable to address how our obsession with sex in our moviegoing and watching tendencies had actually opened the door for such abuse; we so often desire intrigue and scandalous sexual exploits in our media consumption, yet scoff at the practices when they impact real lives. One need only examine the current and most popular Netflix release, 365 Dni (365 Days), or reflect on the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon of recent years to see this truth played out.
This sort of assumed autonomy often carries into our conversations on race. Consider the common response to the rash of racist abuses in recent years: the comments “Well, I’m not a racist,” or “I didn’t own slaves,” ultimately imply an individuality that removes the speaker from any responsibility beyond oneself. It denies a connectedness to the ‘other,’ a dependence on and relationship with the whole of humanity, something King himself articulated:
“Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific Islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American…And before you’ve finished eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world…We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact if the interrelated structure of all reality.”
Selma speaks into this disconnect, bridging the gap between personal culpability and corporate action, and reminding the world that justice, peace, and love are not political ideals to be co-opted by opposing political parties. And, just as it was up to those who joined King on that bridge in Selma, it is up to us to decide if we will join the walk. Will we continue in our distanced individuality, living with blinders towards the ways our words and decisions affect the warp and weft the thread of our society? Or will we acknowledge the ripple effect of both history and present, working together with grace and humility to restore and redeem? The choice is certainly ours, but Selma forces us to remember: the choice is not only ours. It belongs to our fellow humanity.
*Selma is current streaming for free on iTunes – don’t miss it!*