The movie Selma, which debuted on Christmas Day, is an eerily timely film detailing a history not taught in American schools shown in a long time.
There’s the obvious truth we already knew: That Dr. Martin Luther King is in another stratosphere of leadership compared to who’s on the scene today. In terms of King’s results alone no one has come close to him before or since. Anyone attempting to define themselves as a leader in the movement around the Black agenda today needs to check themselves after watching this movie. The film provides a unintended indictment of the non-strategies that yield no results often seen in today’s so-called leadership.
Director Ava DuVernay’s depiction of the lead up to President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act leaves behind huge lessons — many unintentional. The first would be: Without constant pressure on those in power nothing will change. Even within the genre of a history we already know on a man we’ve over-studied there’s that powerful truth.
Selma reminds us of what is required to win results for African Americans with 300 years of American history stacked against them. Even with the predictable restrictions brought on by the principleless King kids who forbade the director to use their father’s actual words for the film — screenwriter Paul Webb tells us that Dr. King remains one of few people in American life to speak brutal honesty on racism and make a difference.
The film reaffirms that Dr. King worked in service of a mission — in the case of the Selma campaign: voting rights. King did not get up in the morning to focused on TV interviews or to reside on panels. His was a results driven movement. Understanding the domino effects of certain actions in Selma and how those actions would win results and “move the needle” on voting rights is featured.
It’s jarring to consider how unthinkable it was to imagine Blacks voting in the South fifty years ago just as it was unthinkable to imagine a Black president in the White House. Now, even with both those realities realized current Black leadership still hasn’t found a way to win.
The post-King era of civil rights groups is more fixated on corporate sponsorships, endless roundtables and sprawling conferences. It also features meetings with people in power that yield no results and endless re-statements of unsolved problems. The pattern typically ends with a behind the scenes deal to keep modern civil rights leaders quiet.
All this comes at at time when any glance at economic data on poverty, unemployment and economic status would tell you something is seriously wrong with Black leadership. That Dr. King was operating during a much more deadly and difficult time punctuated with murder makes it even more of an indictment of today’s “leaders.”
In the wake of Fergson and the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner by state actors, there is the realization that much of what King confronted and improved remains unconquered. We still have unarmed Black men being shot dead and their killers going unpunished after telling tales that implicate the dead person for their demise.
At first glance a viewer could look at Selma as a completely different era. The failure of the state to punish those who killed Black people is featured in the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson by a Alabama State Trooper who was never punished. Given recent events the film prompts a scary question: What’s different now?
Maybe Dr. King appears larger because the stakes were higher. Or maybe it’s because in the 1960s era of law enforcement featured beatings that were routine. But the fact is: that still happens.
With no smart phones, Facebook, Twitter, or laptops you ask: What was it that the group of leaders had fifty years ago that is missing today? King visited the White House in person fewer than 6 times from 1961 to 1968. According to historian Taylor Branch, Dr. King informed President Kennedy and his brother, Attorney Genera Robert F. Kennedy, he would attend no further social functions at the White House until they dealt with his request for an executive order ending segregation.
The thought of any current civil rights leader doing anything close to that now is unimaginable.
Selma also covers internal rivalries within the movement and tactical mistakes. The fact is any movement in the midst of failing to reach a stated goals should be actively questioning itself. Show me a movement with no results and no infighting and I’ll show you a bunch of idiots. Internal criticism in the wake of failure is not a “distraction” as defined today.
Disagreements between groups in the days of Dr. King’s prominence became the moments when leadership re-adjusted failed strategy. There’s a reason you don’t see leaders from NRA, AIPAC and LaRaza fighting publicly. It’s because so many of their goals have already been reached.
Selma in theaters this holiday season becomes a time to push idiot movies about assassinating foreign leaders to the side. Off in Hollywoodland where people can waste $90 million on trivia, the movie Selma is worth far more than that. And Selma will have far more longevity because it details neglected history. It also gives us a much needed whiplash when we compare civil rights activism now and civil rights activism then.