Tale of ’60s struggle shows #BlackLivesMatter

February 20, 2015
David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King (2nd from left) in scene from the film Selma

Directed by Ava DuVernay
Starring David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo & Common
In cinemas now

The release of Selma could not be better suited to the current US political climate. Following the events in Ferguson last year, and many other tragic instances of police murdering and brutalising African American youth, a large anti-police brutality and anti-racism movement has arisen that is shaking the US.

Releasing a film detailing arguably the most famous and groundbreaking civil rights movement in American history means using the Hollywood spotlight to keep the heart of the current movement burning brighter and longer.

In 1965 the struggle to end racist discrimination in the southern states of the USA reached one of its high points.

For years activists had used non-violent, mass-scale civil disobedience to politically expose and isolate the fascistic red-neck authorities who used every means to deny black people full citizenship rights.

Martin Luther King, leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), was the most prominent and eloquent leader. Besides the SCLC there were the youth of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), community activists organised in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and countless local groups.

Selma, Alabama became the flashpoint of the struggle in late 1964 when locals, after years of SNCC community organising began confronting local officials to demand the right to register to vote. Even after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which ended formal segregation, local bureaucrats simply enforced arbitrary rules to deny blacks their rights.

Having reached an impasse, the movement called upon Martin Luther King and the SCLC for help. In January, 1965 King and other leaders started organising and leading protests. Soon there had been over 3,000 arrests (including King), often accompanied by extreme police violence.

In early February, with King imprisoned, Malcolm X went to Selma and addressed a large crowd. This was just weeks before Malcolm’s murder.

On February 26, state troopers murdered a young church deacon in cold blood by, a scene that is chillingly recreated in the film.

The movement chose to answer the killing by organising a symbolic march from Selma to the state capital, Montgomery, the seat of power of the reactionary governor, George Wallace. This pitted unarmed, peaceful demonstrators against openly fascist cops and Ku Klux Klan gangs who were deputised for the event.

The first attempt to march, on Sunday, March 7, 1965 was met with terrible brutality by police and troopers, who literally rode into the 600 demonstrators wielding clubs and whips. King immediately put out a national plea for ministers and other religious leaders to come to Selma for another march and hundreds answered the call within hours.

This film contains confronting scenes of intense and graphic brutality and murder committed by police and their racist white civilian counterparts against people of colour. In fact at one point, a particularly heavy scene is so reminiscent of some of the recent tales of trigger happy police that it’s impossible to not make the connection.

The message of the on-screen movement echoes some of the cries heard from those who are standing up today to the violent racism in America: We are human beings entitled to all rights, we are not afraid, we will not back down.

The SNCC and the northern-states based Congress of Racial Equality began organising demonstrations all over the country, even within the White House and other halls of power. Thus Selma became a national test of strength for the freedom movement and helped to radicalise 60's youth.

A second march was attempted, much larger than the first one and with many religious leaders in the front line. However, King turned the march around even though this time the troopers stood aside.

King was concerned that the march was illegal and that the troopers would entrap the participants. His decision, agreed to in advance by the SCLC leadership but unknown to anyone else, created heated debate within the movement.

That night fascists fatally beat one of the ministers who had come from Boston. The political fallout obliged president Lyndon Baines Johnson to send federal troops to protect the march that lasted from March 21 to 25 and attracted 25,000 people.

The movement forced Johnson’s hand and cemented the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed the petty-fogging abuses of racist officials.

Selma focuses on King’s role and minimises the contributions of the SNCC and other southern activists. Malcolm X is a bit player.

The political debates that animated the movement are generally shown as set-piece discussions in which King sagely listens and then enunciates the defining logic. In reality things were more fluid than that with King under real pressure, especially from the youth who were rapidly moving to the left .

Also, certain events are collapsed into each other and moved around. For example, Malcolm X is shown speaking to Coretta King before he spoke in Selma, whereas they met afterwards, according to Manning Marable’s biography of Malcom.

Something the film does well is its portrayal of the US politicians who were opposing the movement. There was no sense of the politicians as neutral players trying to mediate a situation.

The racism and benefits to the ruling class which influenced their opposition to the movement are made blatantly clear, and when they did compromise their position, it was obvious that it was for their own political reasons and not because they actually believed in the cause.

The film has even been attacked by former politicians and establishment voices for refusing to portray President Lyndon Johnson as a champion of civil rights legislation and proactive partner of King.

This film has no white saviour complex dominating the screen. In fact the only positively portrayed white Americans in the film were background supporters, or minor characters whose limited screen time was used to further depict the religious nature of the movement and the extent to which the violence extended.

The film’s strength is in its drama. The astonishing courage of the black masses in this movement is inspiring. All friends of freedom will be moved to tears by what they see here and stirred to struggle.

The effectiveness of its message was a product of its acting and directing. It contained a cast of great actors and producers, predominantly black. Such casting flies in the face of the casting choices of recent white-washed movies such as Exodus.

Its imagery and music choices also contributed greatly to its emotive impact.

During the end credits of the movie, viewers who have just been angered by a violent system and empowered by the strength of people power get to hear the theme song “Glory”, John Legend and rapper Common, who also stars in the film, which talks explicitly about the movement surrounding Ferguson.

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