Selma was released in 2014 to honor the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches. It came at a convenient time in our country’s history, as the Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice incidents have stimulated a national conversation about our supposedly post-racial society. Intrigued, I was ready to see Selma when it came out. Selma was a phenomenal work, and it’s deserving of our attention not only as a well-made film, but as a thought-provoking story. Selma was a phenomenal work, and it’s deserving of our attention not only as a well-made film, but as a thought-provoking story.
The movie is framed around a series of three attempted marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. to the state capitol in Montgomery; for the purposes of this article, I’ll give a brief summary of the first half. At the same time as the marches, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is urging President Lyndon Johnson to pass what would become the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The first march is a largely grassroots march of five hundred marching two-by-two down the sidewalk. The protesters are nearly (if not entirely) African-American, and are beaten and tear-gassed by state troopers on horseback as they attempt to cross the bridge; unsuccessful, they retreat back across the bridge. Television and news reporters are nearby, and the brutal attack captures the nation’s attention. Dr. King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), steps in, and issues a call to the clergy and concerned citizens to join them on a new march.
On the second march, protesters of all races fill up the entire width of the bridge. As they walk across the apex of the bridge, the commander of the troopers calls them to stand back. Fearful of a trap, Dr. King orders the protesters to retreat. He takes a large amount of heat for his decision. The creators of Selma should be applauded for their decision to not immortalize Dr. King. Oftentimes, he is portrayed as a man above the fracas of the civil rights movement. Selma shows a broken, finite man who struggles to balance the needs of his family and his commitment to justice, and while he ends up succeeding, you wouldn’t guess it at some points in the film. It also shows the conflict he has with members of his own group, the SCLC, and like-minded people outside his group. The civil rights movement didn’t have a clean, obvious path, and Selma dealt with the nuances of the struggle appropriately.
I don’t want to turn Selma or the Civil Rights movie into a moral; it’s a story, and it’s history, and it’s way more than I could say in eight hundred words. But I’d be lying if I said Selma didn’t cause me to question my beliefs about the state of race in America and my role in the struggle. One of the turning points of the movie is when Dr. King calls the clergy to join them on their march. The movie shows an interview with a white minister named James Reeb who comes to Selma to march; he says “I heard about the attack of innocent people, and I couldn’t just stand by.” He is beaten to death by a Klansmen that night after returning to Selma when the second march fails. More than anything else from the movie, that quote stuck out to me. Reeb didn’t come because of his white guilt, or as a white messiah. He came as Christ would, laying down any sense of his privilege and walking humbly with those whom society had marginalized. This is in stark contrast to the attitudes of other whites in the film, from the voter registration office to Governor Wallace to President Johnson. While there’s some debate about whether the movie’s portrayal of Johnson is accurate, it still leads us to question where our hearts are. It’s easy to say “We don’t know what impact James Reeb’s death had on the civil rights movement,” or that our individual participation in a rally or signing a petition or any other action, big or small, will have any measurable impact on the the current situation. It doesn’t matter; as Christians, we’re called to be faithful to the truth of the gospel. One way to think of faithfulness is “a long obedience in the same direction.” By treating faithfulness as an action as well as a mentality, it captures well the tiring, handwringing, decisive commitment to action that I think we’ve lost. We love to quote Micah 6:8, which is the “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” passage. That verse comes in the context of an indictment of the people of God for not wanting to do any of those things. During his time on Earth, Jesus his commitment to the marginalized and oppressed, and Selma made me question mine.