Breathing in Selma: The Powerful History and Contemporary Resonance of Ava DuVernay’s Film


In 1915, Woodrow Wilson famously praised the film The Birth of a Nation for “writing history with lightning.” Based on Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman, the film portrayed the Ku Klux Klan’s heroic campaign to end Reconstruction in the South. Director D.W. Griffith used the still young medium to show American spectators how the military occupation of the defunct Confederacy had placed ignorant former slaves and corrupt Republican carpetbaggers in power, subjecting an already prostrate South to unnecessary indignities. The film was laden with racist portrayals of black politicians crudely eating while in the legislature and black soldiers sexually assaulting innocent young white women. Closing its narrative on election day, when Klan members successfully intimidated black voters from casting their ballots, the movie served as an origins story, providing a theatrical depiction of the Solid South’s beginnings: a visual rendering of Jim Crow’s birth.

Released a century later, Selma powerfully captures that political system’s ultimate demise, offering a magisterial refutation of Jim Crow’s founding myths and governing instruments. At the same time, Selma achieves something this author would have thought impossible in a two-hour film, vividly depicting the Civil Rights Movement with depth and sophistication. On top of all of that, the movie provides a gripping portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr., capturing his gravitas and stature without shying away from his imperfections and frailties. It is fitting that the movie was released exactly one hundred years after Birth of a Nation, as Selma provides a masterful cinematic counterweight to Griffith’s deluded melodrama.

The film opens with a close up shot of King practicing his Nobel Peace Prize speech, informing the audience that the minister is at the height of his personal popularity and worldwide acclaim. A central tension in the film focuses on whether King can continue to lead a grassroots social movement after attaining the status of international celebrity. Indeed, almost immediately, King’s larger than life persona generates friction within the voting rights campaign. Selma poignantly captures the internal ruptures within the Civil Rights Movement during the mid 1960s. While the film gives a nod to the long running feud between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., the main schism is clearly between King and the younger activists in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Reflecting a very real historical divide, SNCC activists view King as a latecomer to voting rights in Alabama, garnering headlines after their years of organizing. Selma captures not only a generation gap, but also the complicated relationship between civil rights leaders and the movement’s foot soldiers.

Simultaneously, SNCC is experiencing its own internal fissures. Some of the film’s most riveting scenes involve a young James Forman and John Lewis. Forman is clearly more antagonistic towards King and the SCLC—sarcastically referring to the clergyman as “the lord.” Lewis on the other hand remains a stalwart practitioner of non-violent direct action. Forman and Lewis represent two different sides of the Black Power philosophy that will eventually tear the group apart. The movie subtly, and yet powerfully, points to the oncoming fragmentation of the Civil Rights Movement, with activists disagreeing where the black freedom struggle should go after Jim Crow had been dismantled.

The film’s forthright depiction of these tensions is indicative of its larger portrayal of the Civil Rights Movement. Selma offers a textured and nuanced rendition of the black freedom struggle, honestly depicting a movement led by black male ministers, but giving credence to the active engagement of women at all levels. Coretta Scott King is shown to be a resilient and steady force in the fight for human equality and freedom, while lesser known figures, like Selma local Annie Cooper, exhibit bravery by attempting to register to vote and standing up to bullying police officers. (I must admit I was disappointed by the little screen time given to Diane Nash, a dynamic historical figure that the film could have done so much more with.) Women are shown on the frontlines in the most brutal engagements with southern law enforcement, as they certainly were in every major civil rights campaign.

What impressed me about Selma was how it implicitly grasped that Jim Crow was more than just a system of racial segregation. It was a political regime. If the Civil Rights Movement was merely about ending segregation, than the struggle should have ceased with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Instead it was about freedom and power, which could only be achieved by dismantling an entire political order, the very point of a campaign for voting rights. The film emphasizes that southern political power resided at the local courthouse, where county officials and sheriffs controlled the levers of power and access to the ballot box. In one scene, Lyndon Johnson pressures Governor George Wallace to allow African Americans to vote in Alabama. Wallace claims that he has no power over the “county registrar.” Though the film clearly mocks Wallace’s hollow proclamations, there is actually much truth to these claims.

Within the one-party South, as the political scientist V.O Key long ago showed, candidates won or lost elections by effectively cultivating networks of local elites (“county courthouse rings”) who could deliver votes on election day. Because poll taxes and literary tests allowed county officials to control the size and shape of the electorate, they could by hook and crook decide who would become governor. Wallace could in fact not strong arm the country registrars who controlled his electoral fate. African American enfranchisement ran counter to this entire structure, since local elites could hardly exercise such control over a black electorate protected by federal oversight. George Wallace, the Selma sheriff Jim Clark, and the police officers who brutalized activists understood that segregation and African American disfranchisement served as lynchpins of the antidemocratic order that provided them with power. Obviously, in a truly competitive and open system, such men would be unacceptable. And like many authoritarian regimes facing mass protests (whether it be in Egypt, Syria, or elsewhere), their only conceivable response was the truncheon, making up for a lack of legitimacy with outright violence.

Violence is inscribed on the film’s genetic code. The director Ava DuVernay establishes this early with a chilling scene of several young children preparing for religious services before a bomb rips through the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four little girls. The clashes between local police officers and protestors are horrific, with the audience able to hear the crack of batons against black bodies and witness the bloodied end result of social dissent. As gory as the film is at times, it is all too appropriate. Unlike other films, such as Twelve Years a Slave, where the audience is meant to reckon with the brutality of American slavery, Selma makes us spectators to the violence much in the same way as average US citizens could witness these confrontations on national television. In this regard, the film captures the very logic of non-violent direct action, showing that non-violence was actually a confrontational strategy meant to elicit repression so as to galvanize the sentiments of the nation.

But in doing so, Selma seems to be posing a series of questions to contemporary Americans. One scene shows the death of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson. Attempting to hide out in a café after local dragoons break up a late night march, Jackson is tracked down by law enforcement and shot. In this instance, we are witness to a fatal act of police power, much in the same way as the public was presented with video evidence of Eric Garner’s death at the hands of the NYPD. So the question seems to be, if we are morally outraged by Jackson’s murder on screen, how could we not be equally infuriated by Garner’s video documented death? Do we have the courage to stand up and be counted as marchers did in 1965? Or are these merely historical injustices with little meaning for current times? The film offers no direct answers, but the audience is forced to grapple with these questions.

Indeed, the film raises other fundamentally troubling issues about state power. The audience is keyed in to when and where certain scenes are taking place by 1960s-style typewriter headings that bare the insignia of the FBI, informing viewers that civil rights activists were constantly surveilled by the federal government. (Having read similar documents in the archives, I can attest to their chilling nature.) J. Edgar Hoover, who was obsessed with destroying King’s reputation, seems dead set on using modern technological instruments to undermine the Civil Rights Movement. One can’t help but make the connection to our own robust surveillance state and wonder whether the technologies meant to protect us are simultaneously being used for reprisals against domestic dissenters.

Unlike other civil rights films, such as the utterly disappointing Mississippi Burning, Selma captures the complicated and ambivalent relationship between the black freedom struggle and the federal government. On the one hand, the grand strategy of the Civil Rights Movement was predicated on federal involvement. Non-violence was premised on the idea that if too much violence occurred the Kennedy and Johnson administrations would have no choice but to step in. But at the same time the federal government was an unreliable partner, always more concerned with domestic tranquility than African American freedom. And though Lyndon Johnson was clearly dedicated to civil rights reform, the film nonetheless captures the persistent presidential frustration with the chief executive’s inability to control the movement.

Finally, Selma offers a riveting portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. To this day, King has rarely been shown in film, a hallowed personae either too difficult or too revered to depict cinematically. King appears as the steady voice of the movement, the seasoned leader who recognizes the larger imperatives that younger activists in SNCC fail to grasp. At the same time, the movie admits his shortcomings, offering a brief but poignant acknowledgment of his many extra marital affairs. Likewise, King’s frailties are vividly depicted, showing a character burdened by the weight of his position, forced to constantly reckon with his own mortality. In essence, King is presented as a human being, prone to questionable decisions (such as when he chooses not to march across the bridge in Selma even though the police had stood aside) and moral miscalculations. For a man who is rivaled only by Abraham Lincoln as a modern day saint, this depiction of Martin Luther King, Jr. was refreshing.

In my humble opinion, Selma is by far the best cinematic depiction of the Civil Rights Movement to date. The film captured the important role played by the federal government and white liberals, while never losing sight of the era’s central protagonists, the African American activists who put their lives on the line to see that the nation live up to its grand principles. In one poignant scene, Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon Johnson stand face-to-face in the oval office, with a portrait of George Washington hanging clearly in the background. It is clear that King and Johnson are debating more than just the voting rights campaign in Selma. They are grappling with the contradictions at the heart of America’s democratic experiment. Like Washington himself, a nation seemingly dedicated to the principle that all men are created equal, and yet willing to accept shocking inequalities for its black citizenry.

Check out Joe Bagley discussing the legacy of George Wallace and white resistance in “Selma” at our friends Matters of Sense .