In the first moments of Selma, I feel butterflies rise in my stomach as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) practices his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize speech while trying to tie his ascot. Butterflies rumble in my soul. I am almost fearful as we step into the world of Selma, because I am a student of the Civil Rights era. The movement’s lessons have shaped my life. I feel like I am about to meet my heroes. So, King fiddles with his ascot in Oslo, Norway, and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) comes close to comfort him, and little girls descend into the bowels of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and…
In the first moments of Selma, I feel butterflies rise in my stomach as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) practices his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize speech while trying to tie his ascot. Butterflies rumble in my soul. I am almost fearful as we step into the world of Selma, because I am a student of the Civil Rights era. The movement’s lessons have shaped my life. I feel like I am about to meet my heroes.
So, King fiddles with his ascot in Oslo, Norway, and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) comes close to comfort him, and little girls descend into the bowels of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and butterflies rise and my soul sits at attention. I know what is coming: hell … and glory.
The film still haunts me. Every performance is nuanced, textured, and humanizing. Director Ava DuVernay’s technique is breathtaking. Her eye translates words into feelings into images — moving images that never leave you. Brutality and reverence occupy single frames. At once, the audience is horrified and awe-struck. I have no doubt Selma should win Oscars.
It is an amazing film, but it doesn’t haunt me because of its excellence. As I sat in the dark watching the movement unfold before my eyes, it was not the past that haunted me. It was the present.
During the film’s Night March, when the state trooper aims his gun at Jimmy Lee Jackson, the eyes of Michael Brown and Ezell Ford and John Crawford III and Tamir Rice flashed through my mind.
When Selma’s citizens marched to the courthouse steps and knelt down with arms raised, I remembered the muddy cement under my own bad knees when faith leaders marched to the Ferguson police department and crossed the line demanding to speak with the police chief.
We are used to the classic sepia-toned footage of Bloody Sunday flashing fast before our eyes, but DuVernay’s interpretation slows down, raises the sound, and shows iconic images of young John Lewis, Annie Lee Cooper, and Amelia Boynton embedded and moving within their lived context. She refuses to let us miss the meaning of this moment. What’s more, DuVernay captures a 100-year-old spirit rising from the troopers as they beat black citizens with barbed wire-wrapped batons, terrorize with tear gas, and mow them down with mounted horsemen. I could not help but flash forward to Ferguson police in Iraq war hand-me-downs, using sound bombs, tear gas, and armored vehicles that rolled through Ferguson’s suburban streets.
Watching Selma was not the first time I had entered the film’s world. Last summer, on the last day of the film shoot, I stepped onto Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge with many veteran faith leaders of Selma’s Civil Rights movement, including Rev. C.T. Vivian, Rev. Joseph Lowery, Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, Jr., and others who stepped back into their own histories that day. They led the way onto the bridge for several of us young’uns whose lives and faith have gleaned from theirs.
Oprah Winfrey, who co-produced and played Annie Lee Cooper in the film, invited us to the set that day and was the first person I saw as we walked onto the bridge. While there, we watched the crew film a scene from the second march when Dr. King and faith leaders knelt down to pray. It was powerful.
After the wrap, I asked Winfrey what the Selma project meant to her.
“Even as a young girl,” she said, “I understood that I was carried by those who came before me. It causes a deep sense of responsibility for this generation, and generations to come, to pass on the meaning of those who’ve come before.”
Young leaders of the Ferguson movement recently blasted Winfrey for reflections she shared during an interview on Selma with People magazine.
According to People, Winfrey said: “What I’m looking for is some kind of leadership to come out of this to say, ‘This is what we want. This is what has to change, and these are the steps that we need to take to make these changes, and this is what we’re willing to do to get it.'”
She seemed unaware of the clear demands leaders in the movement have already made. But, most important, she and many others seem to be waiting for a single leader, like a Dr. King, to emerge as the face of the current movement.
I believe this is an opportunity for what Winfrey calls “an ah-ha moment.”
The Civil Rights era was one in which charismatic leadership was the sought-after norm: MLK, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, heck, Billy Graham. Each lead organizations, but they were pushed to the front largely because of their charismatic leadership styles. This kind of leadership is just not as trusted by the rising generation. In fact, millennials tend to distrust leaders who show up for the spotlight but don’t engage on the ground. For them, it just smells too much like somebody trying to use a moment to land their own reality TV show.
Today’s movement has taken new form: Multiple smaller organizations and networks in partnership with a few national orgs and networks are collaborating and coordinating. They are discerning direction and pushing local and national agendas that have striking levels of overlap.
That said, Selma offers profound and relevant lessons on leadership, power sharing, the role of faith, the value of white allies, and the role of the media for today’s movement leaders. Perhaps the most profound lesson of the film was spoken by Oprah Winfrey on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It can be summed up in five words: We are, because they were.
Selma is a gift for such a time as this. See it everywhere, Jan. 9.