Selma - Great and Ordinary People
by evanwight on December 3, 2017 - 1:54pm
Dr. Marisha Caswell
December 3, 2017
Blog Post 2: Topic 8
Selma was a film that stood out for me because it focused on larger-than-life historical figures, most notably Martin Luther King Jr., and ordinary people. The film managed to de-mystify the great individuals of the time period while also emphasizing the role of the common activist.
A first glance at Selma may give the viewer the impression that it is a biopic about Martin Luther King. It’s true that MLK plays a large role in the film, but he does not dominate the narrative. Included with him are several other civil rights activists, most of which are far less familiar than MLK. The film also avoids putting Martin Luther King on a pedestal. The film shows his faults: his infidelities and his moments of doubt. The moment of the bridge when Martin Luther King bends down in prayer and retreats is especially effective at de-mystifying MLK’s larger than life presence, because it shows him in a moment of fear, and in the ensuing scenes the audience is left to wonder whether he made the right decision. We might look at the murder of the white priest after the retreat from the bridge and wonder whether or not the priest would have been killed if MLK didn’t retreat.
That scene is also important for me because it shows that the sacrifices of the civil rights movement were numerous and didn’t apply exclusively to the African American living in the South. The fact that MLK’s call to action motivated priests around the country was something I was not familiar with, and it brings a new context to understanding the religious aspects of the movement. We see MLK make several sermons throughout the film, and when we see religious men move on Selma, from a number of different religions and dominations, it shows the power that the existing power belief in the United States had on challenging the authority of the government.
The film also shows some lesser known figures and some ordinary people in the fight. For example, there is an emphasis on a character named Annie Lee Cooper, played by Oprah Winfrey, who is simply trying to get registered to vote. She is not a leading force behind the movement, she is just an ordinary person trying to get her voice heard. The fact that such an ordinary person was played by Oprah, who is such a powerful figure in contemporary society, highlights just how important ordinary people were in the movement.
The film also shows conflicts between different sects and groups within the movement, which also help to des-mystify the contemporary understanding of the glory of the civil rights movement. It shows how a number of people had varying beliefs and different ideas on how to achieve their goals, and uniting these people was a strategic and diplomatic effort. It also shows how the methods to achieve civil rights wasn’t magical but strategic; it involved a system of agitation that was carefully formulated and put into practice. There are benefits to this system and there are problems, and the film explores how the system of agitation fails at times, leading to violence, but ultimately succeeds.
All-in-all, I think Selma was a very effective film at portraying the different aspects of history, from ordinary figures to extraordinary individuals. In terms of entertainment value I think it’s rather average, but it shows how films can explore complex historical issues.