Amplifying Black Voices: Selma from Ava DuVernay

How’s everyone doing out there? Good I hope. Make sure you’re staying safe and taking care of yourself. That’s been pretty challenging this year, but it’s more important than ever.

Of the many losses we have endured in 2020, one of the more notable ones was the passing of John Lewis, longtime Congressman for Georgia, civil rights leader and proponent of good trouble. Upon his death, colleagues and admirers praised his memory and were adamant that the best way to honor Lewis is to continue his legacy of fighting for justice and equality for black people.

Selma shows us Lewis towards the beginning of that journey, as he embarked on a series of voting rights marches along with fellow leaders Martin Luther King Jr., James Bevel and Hosea Williams, among others. Things go about as well for them as you’d expect in 1960s Alabama: white supremacy rears its ugly head to meet them head on and the marchers are beaten, arrested and in some cases murdered. If you know your history or if you’ve simply seen the film, you know that ultimately King, Lewis and co. overcame this particular wave of hatred and bigotry and completed their march from Selma to Montgomery. These efforts were a key part of securing voting rights for black people. Happy ending, right?

Well, not exactly. Selma was released in 2014 but in many ways, the story is timeless. It is sadly an accurate depiction of any point in U.S. history when black people have advocated for their own justice. John Legend, who won an Oscar for the song he and Common wrote for the film, expressed that this is still very much a modern story. DuVernay rightfully showcases the efforts of these civil rights heroes, but this is just as much of a wake up call as anything. 2020 provides all the evidence you need to see that these issues are as deeply rooted in our country as ever. The murder of George Floyd. Black Lives Matter protests being attacked both literally and figuratively. The shooting of Jacob Blake. The lack of justice for Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain (who was murdered not too far from where I live). On and on it goes.

DuVernay is an expert at pulling back the curtain and educating us on these systemic problems. One of the lessons here is that there is a danger in viewing Selma in a solely historical context because of its modern day relevancy. It disappoints me that many critics chose not to highlight that aspect but rather how inaccurately Lyndon B. Johnson may or may not have been portrayed. If your main critique of the film is that the white President didn’t get his fair share of credit for the supporting role he played in this movement, you are missing the point. And besides, adaptations in film are not supposed to be documentaries. As Lewis himself wrote, “We do not demand completeness of other historical dramas, so why is it required of this film?”

I think that alone shows how much work is to be done to reach true equality and justice for black people.

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