Films are a way for us to gain understanding of the world around us. Roger Ebert once called them tools for empathy, and he was right in that regard. A movie can be made by someone from a different walk of life, a different culture, and can open our eyes to how other people — who we may not know about — and how they live compared to our own lives. They also can work as glasses for our culture and events that are happening outside that we may not fully understand or comprehend because of the snow-globe that we sometimes put ourselves in.
While Selma is a film that takes place in the year 1965, it is just as important in the year 2014. With the events of Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner happening in the United States this year, a film like Selma instantly became something that could work both as a tool of empathy, but also as glasses for those (like me) who just can’t comprehend what others went through at this time in history.
While other films have focused on these figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., or areas of history, Selma seems to be more poignant in showing us what it was like being a civil rights activist in Alabama (or the whole United States) thanks to the excellent directing by Ava DuVernay and performance by David Oyelowo as Dr. King.
Selma isn’t as much as film about Martin Luther King Jr. (even though he is the figure on the poster and the selling point), but instead, it works as a film about people and the African-Americans in Selma, Alabama in 1965 that showed unequivocal courage in the face of great peril. But instead of segmenting the story like it was Crash, DuVernay meshes each figure into the story as a whole body with King leading the group (as he did when they marched on the bridge).
King leads the group, but they come together as one in order to get there, and DuVernay is able to weave each character into the story without creating a big show about it. She uses these moments of doubt that are shown within the ranks of people who decide to join King and his march towards Montgomery as he tries to achieve voting rights for black Americans, but shows that strength and dialogue are the two ways in order to achieve something and limit the loss of lives with it.
Oyelowo as King is the figurehead for this as one of the first moments that we see him is during a meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) as he tries to persuade the President to push a bill that will allow blacks to vote before anything dramatic happens. While his point is continually put on hold, King understands that things are happening around him that may be unable to be stopped and not until he kneels on the bridge as the cops are allowing him to go does he realize that sometimes the hard decision must be made in order to achieve a goal and that a step back isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
But what really gets to the point are the moments of carnage as men and women run through the streets being beaten and pushed over by cops. DuVernay shoots them tight and makes sure that the emotion of the actions are felt due to the relationships that we have developed with the people being attacked and how vicious these attacks come for those people who have chosen not to fight back.
What DuVernay also does so well is show that color in both sides of the fight. People on both sides of the battle have their doubts about the actions that are taking place and the film never feels the need to talk down to the audience, instead letting us understand on our own through actions and speech that the right course of action must be taken in order to achieve the goal.
Selma is more a story about us now rather than in the past as much it is a story about the people of Selma, Alabama in 1965 than Martin Luther King Jr. He is just a figure in a long battle that will eventually come to a conclusion, much as Selma is just a film that strikes us at this point in our timeline. But much like King, we must decide our step, whether it be forward or backward, and the movie works as a fantastic model for how to achieve this.
Films can be tools of empathy and glasses for our culture, and while the effect of Selma may not be felt now, maybe it will inspire some to be more of a voice in this issue rather than just a face in the crowd.