Our new issue is out now. Get a discounted subscription today!

Selma Is Now

Ava DuVernay's Selma is a reminder of how unfinished the struggle for equality and democracy is.

Civil rights activists finish their 1965 march to Montgomery, AL, nearly three weeks after "Bloody Sunday."

In 1988, as a supporter of Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign, I traveled throughout the South organizing and writing. Selma, AL was one of my stopping points. My schedule put me in the historic town right at the time of the annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee, which commemorates the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. (That’s the civil description; I prefer to call it “Bloody Sunday,” which most vividly and accurately describes the event.)

That year’s commemoration also served as an appropriate get-out-the-vote rally for the primary election. The few days I was in Selma were filled with house meetings, campaign meetings, planned meetings with key people, and spontaneous talks on the street with Selma residents.

I visited Brown Chapel AME Church, first standing in the aisle, slowly panning the sanctuary, and then randomly selecting a pew in which to sit. I knew I was on hallowed ground and wondered what it would’ve been like sitting there listening to a Dr Martin Luther King or Rev. James Bevel. Who would’ve been sitting next to me, in front of me? What would we be saying to one another? I conjured up my own interpretation of a 1965 meeting that could have been held in the chapel.

In Selma, director Ava DuVernay has done the same. DuVernay projects onto the big screen her interpretation of the historic and tumultuous events that led to the signing of the Voting Rights Act. The backdrop is the ugly, segregated South, which had successfully been robbing black folks of their constitutional and human rights for generations.

DuVernay is a story-teller, and she admits she took creative and historical license with Selma. But it’s not the kind of license taken to cast a white Liz Taylor as the African queen Cleopatra. It’s the kind of license where you know you had one shot to cram in as many characters, conflicts, and scenes as you could without compromising your artistic vision and offending the intelligence of the people you were trying to reach.

Yes, we know that the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four young girls in Birmingham happened two years before the Selma marches, not on the eve of Blood Sunday. We know that Rev. James Reeb was passing by the Blue Moon Diner, not coming out of it, when he was viciously attacked by white racists and that he died a couple of days later — not that same night. Yes, we know that Jimmie Lee Jackson died in a hospital a week later and not in the arms of his grieving mother on a restaurant floor.

Those are minor inaccuracies when you take into consideration the more substantive elements of that intense period DuVernay is committed to portraying.

We also know DuVernay rewrote Dr King’s speeches. This had little to do with her creative license and everything to do with the fact that no one can use his words, as they have been commodified and sold by the King Estate to Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks Pictures.

Still, some have criticized Selma for its veracity.

Among the detractors is Joseph Califano Jr, President Lyndon Johnson’s chief assistant for domestic affairs during the timeframe depicted in Selma. Writing in the Washington Post, Califano criticized DuVernay for her portrayal of Johnson as a reluctant supporter civil rights supporter, even asserting that the Selma march was his boss’s idea. LBJ Presidential Library and Museum director Mark K. Updegrove is also upset, maintaining that Johnson and King were “close partners in reform.”

Both are wrong. LBJ was no willing, enthusiastic supporter of civil rights but a shrewd politician.

As if they were following a script written especially for the occasion, several popular entertainment publications joined the league of haters by simultaneously publishing articles about the controversial aspects of the movie even before it was fully released to theaters.

DuVernay refused to get sucked into the fray, confidently telling Rolling Stone that she “wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie” but instead “a movie centered on the people of Selma.”

DuVernay came into the film project after it was already underway. Ironically, it was David Oyelowo, already cast as Dr King, who insisted that DuVernay be considered as the replacement director. Once she accepted the challenge, DuVernay immediately began making changes to Paul Webb’s screenplay — elevating the women, humanizing the iconic Dr King, examining the complicated relationship of the Kings through Coretta’s lens and giving us a glimpse of the organizational and generational contradictions that often emerge in these political spaces.

It was important for the black female director to shine a light on the contributions of women “who are too often marginalized” because of sexism in the Civil Rights Movement. I applaud DuVernay for introducing freedom-fighting women like Diane Nash, Richie Lee Jackson, Annie Lee Cooper, and Amelia Boynton to a new generation.

Watching the film in St Louis, the movie took on a much deeper meaning as the region struggles with the recent combustion of racist laws and practices, and the brutal response to nonviolent protesters by racist police forces. The movie’s characters were all too familiar and the parallels were stark. We have our own Gov. George Wallace, our own Sheriff Jim Clark, and our own battleground.

In some instances, particular scenes profoundly resonated with local audiences. A vivid example is when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organizes a group of protesters to march to the Perry County jail, and the police turn off the streetlights to hide from the media the brutal beating of protesters.

Similarly, in late November last year, St Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch announced at 8 PM that the grand jury was not going to indict white police officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of Mike Brown, an unarmed black teen. In the cloak of night, all hell broke loose in Ferguson as police unleashed their terror on protesters and torched businesses lit up the sky.

I watched Selma in a full, rapt theater, the audience clearly connecting with the movie on a visceral level. When it ended, the theater erupted in applause, and moviegoers patiently waited through the credits. When the audience heard the line in “Glory” “That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up,” there was a tremendous roar. I’ve been told that similar reactions occurred in many theaters across the St Louis metropolitan area.

The nation is about to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday, and the issues of 1965 are still with us. We are still fighting for voting rights. (Twenty-nine states have introduced restrictive voting laws.) State terror continues. (Nearly every twenty-eight hours, there’s an extrajudicial killing of a black person.) White minority rule is still present. (Ferguson has a white mayor and majority-white city council with a nearly 70 percent black population.) Poverty hasn’t abated. (Selma has a 42 percent poverty rate, according to the last US Census.)

Organizing for democracy, equality, and human dignity is just as challenging as it was in 1965. The Civil Rights Movement had to deal with male egos, police brutality, and FBI harassment. The movement was split internally over tactics. I appreciated those times in Selma when organizers — including Dr King — expressed impatience with people and circumstances or uncertainty about the best way forward. Human flaws and weaknesses are inseparable from courage and triumph.

As hundreds assembled in 1988 to make the historic walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, I met two new friends. Adolescent siblings Jesse and Jerica had come to the march on their own and did not know the history of the bridge or much else. I took their hands and began the walk across the bridge, telling them the story — our story — of the struggle for human rights. I made them promise they would be freedom fighters for equality and justice for all. Both solemnly promised.

This is a critical time for a movie like Selma, a time when the nation is writhing in pain as it’s forced to shed another layer of racism. While it may not be entirely historically accurate or acknowledge the sacrifices of all the brave activists, the movie illuminates what it takes to reach a transformative moment in the crucible of struggle.

We can all be storytellers. We must all be freedom fighters. We have all been cast in this movie called Democracy, and the script must been rewritten. Again. And again.