The Moral Universe – “Selma”: Teach the Children Well

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Having had a week now to live with “Selma,” and having listened to the soundtrack several times, I have to say that it is the most important movie I have seen in a very long time.

To label a film “important” may seem similar to telling someone that their blind date has a nice personality, but I mean it most sincerely. It is good movie-making as well as chronicling an epic turning point in American history; it is timely, compelling, inspiring, and if I could afford it, I would pay for every middle school student in my state to see it.

As the newly elected treasurer of the Berkshire chapter, NAACP, I am very proud to say that we are helping to finance middle school students in the county to see this movie and have received commitments from two major cinemas to hold it over for two weeks to accomplish this.

I pray that every middle school in the nation is planning to find similar ways for students to see this movie and then follow it up with a Black History Month project on the Civil Rights movement in general.

Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay could not have predicted that our supposedly “post-racial” country would come apart at the seams in the summer of 2014; it can be assumed that her movie’s opening was meant to herald the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery in March 2015. However, Selma’s painful events were echoed in Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island in the just-past sorrowful year, and one can’t help but draw comparisons.

In fact, the song that is played at the end of the movie (which has been nominated for an Oscar) and must have been written late into the post-production work. “Glory,” written and performed by rapper Common and John Legend, refers to Ferguson and is a blend of rap and gospel music that is simply beautiful. It was one of only two awards I was excited about during the Golden Globes (the other was Michael Keaton winning for “Birdman.”)

For me, who’s watched many documentaries and read countless versions of Bloody Sunday in Selma, the biggest significance of the film is that it introduces the pantheon of heroes and heroines of the movement to young people who might otherwise never know anything more about the subject. I am including young African-Americans, who may be in desperate need of heroes and heroines right now. “Selma” should be a jumping off point to studying the entire period from 1960 to 1965 at least.

Anyone who wants to read more should get Taylor Branch’s second volume of his three-part series about the Martin Luther King Jr. year, specifically pages 552 through 600 of “Pillar of Fire.” It follows step by step the timeline and important details of the voting rights work in Selma once Dr. King became involved.

Congressman John Lewis’s memoir, Walking with the Wind, is also an important source from one of the last living survivors, and key players, in the Selma march and the movement in general. Much was happening in Alabama on voting rights long before Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference got involved, and Congressman Lewis was in on it from the beginning as a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Another important source is “Eyes on the Prize,” a 1980s 14-hour PBS series by documentarian Henry Hampton. The whole series is must-see viewing for anyone who thinks of themselves as culturally literate; the final instalment is just about Selma and will move you in many ways.

That Ms. DuVernay was not nominated as Best Director and David Oyelowo not nominated as Best Actor is an indictment of the white male majority of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences. “Selma” was nominated as “Best Picture,” but seems like somewhat of an appeasement nomination. Every piece of the movie comes together to present not only one of the saddest days of our history but also a glorious day when the Voting Acts Right was signed.

Roy Reed

Roy Reed

I’m going to address in another blog some of the history that had to be conflated to make a two-hour movie. But a special, personal note that I have to insert: A New York Times reporter named Roy Reed is portrayed in the movie by actor John Lavelle. Mr. Reed’s actual reportage is used to narrate the Bloody Sunday stampede of Sheriff Clark’s posse toward the marchers on March 7, 1965. Mr. Reed is the father of a dear friend and I have met him on a few occasions, but at a time when I was not well acquainted with his history. His reporting helped people in the North to understand the travesty of racism in Alabama and also helped to bring people flocking to Selma to try the march again.

So having met Congressman Lewis in August, I now have two touchstones to Selma, living history that, I hope, will keep me committed to this effort.

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