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The Director of the African American History Museum Weighs in on “Selma”

A film with black history at its core and created by African Americans opens up a “national conversation”

"One of the most important contributions" of the film, says Lonnie Bunch, "is the humanization of Dr. King," as portrayed by David Oyelowo. (© Selma, Paramount Pictures)
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When an audience applauds at the end of a history lesson, that’s more than gratifying for a scholar.

In this case, I’m thinking of all the reactions to Selma, the film that vigorously recounts the days that led up to the 1965 marches in Selma, Alabama. Audiences are applauding, and crying. This movie ventures way beyond a simple chronicle of the battlefield that was the 1960s and Selma stands as a lasting gift from the filmmakers and the actors for all who care about America.

This is very brave filmmaking. Selma was a watershed event in the Civil Rights Movement, bringing national attention once again to the bravery of the people of Selma and their supporters, and to the brutality of the Southern officials. Under the firm hand of director Ava DuVernay, the danger of the 1960s South is given a reality rarely seen on film. Early in the film, she reminds us of the horrors with a beautiful scene of the girls in Birmingham, Alabama, walking down the church steps to their Sunday school class at the 16th Street Baptist Church—just seconds before the church would be bombed. No matter how many times I have seen pictures of those girls, or held from our collections the shards of glass from the stained glass window of their church, the sound of the bomb going off shocked and angered me all over again.

I must applaud the filmmakers for bringing to life from old newsreels and photographs the dignified faces you see crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  Many of these people had lived in Selma before “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965 and continued their lives there after the march and the national attention. They are profiles in courage. Who came to life for me? Mr. Cager Lee, played by Henry G. Sanders; Mrs. Annie Lee Cooper, personified by Oprah Winfrey; and Mrs. Amelia Boynton, acted by Lorraine Toussaint. And the foot soldiers, including James Bevel, played by Common, Diane Nash, played by Tessa Thompson and John Lewis, portrayed by Stephan James. I am remembering so many dignified faces and timeless words.

At the center of Selma of course, is Dr. Martin L. King, Jr.  played by David Oyelowo and President Lyndon B. Johnson, played by Tom Wilkinson. Throughout the film, the audience is taught important lessons about both men. King was not only leading marches and giving speeches; he represented the hopes of everyday Americans in conversations with the country’s leader. He stood toe-to-toe with a man who had to weigh his support against other issues. But, as detailed in the film, Johnson knew this wasn’t just any issue. Politics begat wavering. “This voting thing will just have to wait,” Johnson barked. And King, respectfully, responded: “It can’t wait Mr. President.” And, all the historical records tell us, Johnson did not create the Selma marches.

Oprah Winfrey portrays Mrs. Annie Lee Cooper, (© Selma, Paramount Pictures)

The humanity of all came through, from angry members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who confronted King in a church meeting when he cut off the first march. And the humanity was evident in a searing moment between Johnson and Alabama Governor George Wallace. Johnson said he didn’t want to be remembered in the same light as Wallace. This scene and many others underscore how important presidential involvement can be.

The firestorm around the film and its depictions of King and Johnson, I believe, merit our attention. Many presidential historians whom I respect, such as Mark Updegrove of the LBJ Presidential Library, have rightly pointed out moments where the film’s narrative veers from the narrative created by those who have written about this period. While the film powerfully depicts the tensions and the sometime conflicting tactics that shaped the relationship between King and Johnson, there are moments where historical accuracy loses out to dramatic and cinematic needs. Yet the overall depictions of the period and the individuals who shaped the Selma March are accurate and poignant. Unlike most films that claim to explore the Civil Rights Movement, Selma does not privilege the white perspective nor does it use the movement as a convenient backdrop for a conventional story. In fact, this film brilliantly illuminates the lives of civil rights crusaders who rarely make it into the media limelight, among them–Viola Liuzzo, a white woman active in the NAACP in Detroit, who was shot in the head and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan after joining King and thousands on the March to Montgomery; she was 39; and Amelia Boynton, a middle aged black woman who was beaten, tear-gassed and left for dead during the Bloody Sunday march; she is now 103. The overall tone, narrative and characterizations in Selma are ripe with an accuracy and a truth rarely evident in American films.  

The portrayals of this period will resonate, I hope, with the most important audience for Selma—our youth. The high school students who are given an opportunity to see the movie free in many cities are learning, even through the lens of a filmmaker, that change is possible thought it is never without sacrifice and a struggle that is complex and uneven.

In the opening moments of the film we see King preparing for the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in Stockholm and grousing to his wife, Coretta Scott King, that it wasn’t right that he was away from the movement and dressed up in an uncomfortable cutaway coat. To underscore his humanity, the filmmakers include a discussion of their dreams as a couplea strong start in revealing the inner thoughts, not only of King, but almost every character in the Selma saga. That is a rare achievement in filmmaking.

David Oyelow stars as Martin Luther King, Jr. in the film Selma. (© Selma, Paramount Pictures)

While our youth have seen the senior statesman that John Lewis is today, students are seeing the actions of his youth. They are seeing the blueprint for “#BlackLivesMatter” and hopefully will continue their protests over police killings and other injustice. And realize once again, we need pressure not only in the streets but inside the decision-making meetings. And most importantly, this film will help people remember the impact, import and power of the vote. And that the struggle for fairness and justice will never end.

One of the most important contributions of Selma is the humanization of Dr. King. The film helps many to see beyond a monument or a textbook and begin to view him as a man who played with his children; asked his wife for forgiveness for his weaknesses; listened to his younger critics like John Lewis; struggled with doubts and yet persevered.

But the film also has opened up a national conversation about how films with black history at its core and African Americans as its creators are treated by the entertainment industry. Awards, decided on and presented by peers, are symbolic acknowledgments of good work. The politics of awards are unknown to most, and the question lingers: why the Motion Picture Academy only nominated Selma for two awards. For some, who determine the “award winners” the debate about the historical accuracy of the film had a negative impact. Yet if historical accuracy were an important barometer to judge a film’s greatness, an array of movies—from Gone With the Wind to Lawrence of Arabia to Braveheart—would not have garnered the Oscar for best picture. Nor would actors like John Wayne, Charles Laughton or Gary Cooper receive best actor awards for portraying characters where historical accuracy mattered little.

This film, Selma stands now, and in the future, as excellent work, no matter what measure is used to judge its quality and impact. In the film there was much to reward: the actors brilliantly humanized history, the script captured the pulse and the pain of the period, and the superb direction by Ava DuVernay brought the past to life, so that all who see this film will understand that history profoundly shapes the America of today and points us towards what we can become.

Selma is a remarkable film that needs no Oscar to validate it.

"The film helps many to see beyond a monument or textbook," says Bunch. (©Selma, Paramount Pictures)
About Lonnie Bunch
Lonnie Bunch

Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, is the author of more than a dozen books on history, race and museum scholarship.

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