President Barack Obama’s speech given on the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama has been variously dissected and defended, prodded and praised. Nevertheless it helps to capture today, the essence of struggle and triumph that took place during that period in 1965. There is a section of his speech that expresses a central theme of the film Selma, the act of people coming together for the purpose of change. He asks “What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people – the unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many – coming together to shape their country’s course?”
The film is a dramatisation of the events that took place in Selma, Alabama as part of the African American people’s movement to exercise their constitutional right to vote. There were three marches that month, the last two led by Dr Martin Luther King. There have been many portrayals of Martin Luther King Jr but Selma director, Ava Duvernay wanted to present a different view of his character. For example Dr King, who is often referenced by his ‘I Have a Dream speech, is seen from the perspective of man, husband, father as well as powerful leader. By doing that, the film tries to humanise the struggle and speaks to us of our own potential. The film is a study of what happens when intention and action result in revolution, based largely on the commitment, resolve and shared aims of the people.
It is a study in dedication
The commitment of the men and women who took part in the marches is remarkable; it is echoed in the dedication of those who brought this story to the screen. There were many passionate people involved in the making of the film, perhaps none more than the main actor, David Oyelowo. David tells the story of how he ‘knew‘ he was to play Martin Luther King Jr and describes how when given the opportunity, he embodied the character such that it could ring true on screen. His commitment to the process paid off, earning him much praise for his performance.
It is a study in determination
The people that marched were aware of the risks to their lives but went ahead regardless. They were determined to change the course of history and literally put their lives on the line. The first march termed Bloody Sunday was as the name implies violent, but they were undeterred. Many of them held on to their resolve, facing off against the batons, tear gas, sticks and stones. They rallied together for the second time, and it is during the third that they actually completed the march and gained victory. The makers of Selma were determined to get the story told, and many of those who took part in the actual march were part of the film, fifty years on, just as invested.
It is a study in solidarity
Such a demonstration reminds us of what is possible when people get together in unity, to galvanise change. It is recorded that were 600 people from different walks of life, from different faiths and different backgrounds united for one cause. White and black came together determined to stand up against injustice. We don’t always appreciate the power of unity or even the power that we have within us. In one scene in the film, Amelia Boynton Robinson, played by Lorraine Toussaint, reassures Coretta Scott King. She reminds her of her ancestors: ‘They are in our blood stream, pumping in our hearts every second. They prepared you. You are prepared.
We too are prepared. We may not agree with the rhetoric of President Obama, or disagree with the stylisation or representation of the film. What is difficult to contest is the ability of a well told story to impart huge life lessons, to teach, lead, and position us to walk in our own potential and to ‘shape the course of things.’