‘Selma’ backlash shows civil rights struggle is not over

SHARE ‘Selma’ backlash shows civil rights struggle is not over

David Oyelowo portrays the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in a scene from “Selma,” a film based on the slain civil rights leader. | Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures via AP

I’m ashamed to say it, but it took controversy for me to go to the movie theater to see “Selma.”

It’s not that I didn’t want to see a movie about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But let’s just say I’ve been disappointed in the past when it comes to movies about the civil rights movement.


Too often, these movies end up being more about the white ally than the black person fighting against discrimination.

I also don’t see the entertainment value of sitting through a movie that opens old wounds. I figured I’d get around to seeing “Selma” sooner or later.

When the controversy erupted over the film’s director, Ava DuVernay, not being nominated for an Oscar, it piqued my interest.

I hadn’t considered that “Selma” is the first major motion picture about King.

Like many of you (oh go on and admit it), I confused all those documentaries, TV-movies and films centered on civil rights themes as being about King.

After all, you can’t tell the complete story about the battle for school desegregation and voting rights in the South and not consider King’s influence.

But DuVernay went deep. She constructed a film that presented King as a real man, not just the symbol of a movement.

He was fallible and faithful, charismatic and insecure, blessed and cursed.

“I studied him. But certainly there was always more to know, and ‘Selma’ afforded me the opportunity to elongate my view of him,” DuVernay said in a recent interview with the Atlantic.

If the Academy of Motion Pictures dissed “Selma” like it dissed “The Color Purple,” it’s a sure sign the film is destined to become a black family classic.

So I beat it to the movie theater on Sunday afternoon and was blown away.

First, by the depiction of the bombing that killed four little girls at a Birmingham church during the height of the civil right movement, and later by the re-enactment of the violent assault that took place on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Peaceful protesters had arms linked to begin their march to the state capital of Montgomery, when armed officers on foot and on horseback attacked them with clubs, whips and tear gas.

I don’t think I could have knowingly walked into harm’s way like that.

Obviously, this movie might be too intense for younger audiences. After seeing the film, I’ve changed my mind about taking my 7-year-old granddaughter.

“Selma” has been nominated for Oscars in the “Best Picture” and “Best Original Song” categories, but fans are disappointed that David Oyelowo, who portrayed King, and DuVernay were overlooked.

Frankly, King’s image and voice are still so familiar, it took awhile for me to warm up to Oyelowo. And DuVernay is being attacked for her portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson as an obstructionist rather than King’s partner in the fight for voting rights.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was one of the leaders of the Selma marches, responded to those critics in a Los Angeles Times op-ed last week: “We do not demand completeness of other historical dramas, so why is it required of this film?” he asked.

“The truth is the marches occurred mainly due to the extraordinary vision of the ordinary people of Selma, who were determined to win the right to vote, and it is their will that made a way,” Lewis said.

DuVernay’s decision to present King’s story on her terms sets this film apart and makes it a powerful testament to the civil rights movement.

We can show our appreciation by making “Selma” a priority.

After all, in Hollywood, what matters most is what’s happening at the box office.

The Latest
Second City alum (and critic) Dewayne Perkins co-writes and co-stars in comedy film about why the Black characters always die first.
The world-renowned conductor, who is stepping down from his post with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra later this month, plans to return to the podium at Symphony Center, but less frequently and without the demands of being the orchestra’s music director.
Orit Peleg is in the process of an extended study into the mysteries of the meaning of the blinking of fireflies.
if Illinois wants to get the best student achievement bang for its taxpayer buck, it should stop subsidizing the choice to send children to a private school.
By politicizing sexual and gender identity, we’ve made it harder to support a group of students who often feel marginalized. We need to do better.