Selma — a review
Spoiler alert – oh hell, we know how it ends…
I don’t remember how this opened because, moments into it, you see a gaggle of gorgeous little kids traipsing down pretty stairs in a beautiful church. They’re dressed to the nines, discussing their outfits and hair and you know – oh, you know – that something’s about to happen. You know especially if you were alive when it happened.
One minute there is innocence. The next moment, the world explodes in sharp timbers, flying bricks and little bodies knocked out of their shoes. And then, silence as the camera pans over the dusty ruins with those sweet young bodies lying still and dead where joy had been just instants before.
If you were alive at the time, even if you were a kid like I was, you will remember this. You will remember this powerful man and his beautiful, determined wife who sacrificed so much for the future of African American people – and for those of us who feel we are all diminished when one part of our species is crushed and oppressed. You probably remember watching the marches, chewing on your knuckles because you knew what was coming. There was an abscess of hatred festering in the American South and it was about to be lanced.
Live in black and white, I saw the cops unleash their dogs on well dressed, peaceful people – mothers, fathers, young and old. I saw people go down under the full force of fire hoses and truncheons. I saw the faces of hate turned on people who had done nothing to deserve it. I’m not sure my parents even thought to protect my brother and me from seeing it – it was too important that we knew what was happening.
I’ve never been to Alabama and honestly, never wanted to, but I grew up in the South. People can tell me Missouri isn’t southern until the cows come home, but I know better. Missouri was a slave state, admitted such as part of the Missouri Compromise (http://www.history.com/topics/missouri-compromise) and its history regarding race is long and ugly. There is a picture I cannot find online but that I can see in my mind’s eye where it will haunt me forever. It was taken in Boone County, where I grew up, of a sweet little white family having a nice picnic, under the hanging corpse of a lynched young black man. Nor have I forgotten passing by the Frederick Douglass school where, as my mother put it, “that’s where the Negro children go,” and her replying to my protest that this sounded pretty stupid that “that’s the way it is.”
It’s why I know that the faces of hate portrayed so chillingly in the movie were absolutely accurate. I remember those faces – masks over the features of my friends’ parents – as little black kids came to my elementary school for the first time.
Most of us know the story of Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. What we don’t realize, because Dr. King has become a historical figure, which intrinsically strips the dimensional humanity from him, was that he was a real, breathing, imperfect person. The movie doesn’t flinch from showing his infidelities through a moment when a threatening phone call exposes a soundtrack of it to his wife. It shows his incredible determination to prevail, but also that this was a fearsome and overwhelming burden for a man who dreamed of having a church, a sweet little home where his children could grow up, of teaching a class or two “after this is all over.”
One of the most powerful things this movie does is one of its simplest. In long, musicless moments, you can hear him breathing. Just…breathing. Breathing like all of us. It reminds us that he was alive just like any of us. That he rose in the morning and slept at night. That he ate dinner and drank coffee and smoked cigarettes. He wasn’t an icon. He was not a two-dimensional figure. He was a real, living, fallible person with an extraordinary task to do.
The people who were a part of this were all the more extraordinary for also being absolutely ordinary. They were nurses and farmers and shopkeepers – nobody you can imagine anyone ever wanting to harm. But the Alabama police, backed by then-governor George Wallace, unimpeded by the politically expedient president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, brutalized them with all the zeal of devout worshipers of hate and their devotion to preserving the “proper order of things.” And the people suffered and they died – all unheeded until, finally, the media took notice and the unflinching eyes of the cameras were opened, recording the vicious brutality of white retaliation.
It wasn’t until the horrific reality was exposed to the nation that the fire was lit under the generational population, particularly liberal whites who were just beginning to wake up to the injustices being perpetrated at the time. And they came. The celebrities came – black and white. Ordinary white citizens came and the clergy – so many of them – until one-third of the marchers were white. Then side by side, arms linked, they marched. In that harsh light of exposure, the police and the haters stood by and did nothing as the people marched to Montgomery, the capitol of Alabama, as they gathered outside the capitol building and Dr. King spoke of how poor little white kids were raised with the consolation that at least they were superior to black people but that this was going to change.
I told friends before I saw “Selma” that I’d cry through the whole thing. I was right. I wept when the police shot a young man in front of his mother and grandfather. I sobbed as cops and freelance haters chased people through the tear gas with billy clubs and whips and brought them down. I was wiping my face when they beat a young white minister to death as they called him a n****r lover. Near the end, they spliced in real footage of that march, with images of Sammy Davis Jr. and Harry Belafonte walking with all the ordinary men, women and children, and there went the tears again. This wasn’t academic to me. It was personal. It was the memory of a time that wounded the hearts of so many of us – and the scars remain, but also the determination that hate has no place in our world.
For me, this movie brought it all back to life.
Go see “Selma,” but bring tissues and, better yet, a supportive friend (thank you, Ann Evans!) whose hand you can clutch for the many times your heart will be in your throat. Like so many things in human history, this is something we must not forget.