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Selma is a film in which every moment has weight. A week after seeing it (in BAM’s Harvey Theater, where it gets the space and screen it deserves), one moment in particular sticks with me. It is the second march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., leads the crowd. Nearly over the bridge, the (majority black) protestors encounter the (entirely white) police force, the same police force that enacted brutality during the first attempted march. The police are given an order to stand down. But rather than whooping out victory, King falls to his knees. He prays, and then (spoiler alert) turns the march around. For a struggling minute before anyone else can understand, King swims upstream against those who were following him only a minute before.
In light of the recent New York Police Department “slow down,” King’s hesitation holds even more weight. A desire for less police brutality, fewer shootings, less profiling, is not a desire for New York to be willfully unprotected. Nor should it necessarily result in applause for the leaders who say “hold back.” I don’t care how few tickets have been written; I care why. I care at the expense of what. As we continue to lead our daily lives in the neighborhoods we call home, as we continue to march, I keep coming back to the question of responsibility. What is it to be the avant-garde when the way ahead may prove more dangerous? Or: how do we know when a moment is right? If the police step back, does it mean that black lives can step forward?
Selma has been mired in arguments about historical accuracy that hinge on exactly this question. Critics of the film have questioned the accuracy of Selma’s portrayal of then-President Lyndon Johnson, stating that any conflict between him and King — or depictions of the FBI tracking King — is greatly exaggerated on-screen. Whether you support director Ada DuVernay’s position or that of LBJ’s supporters, the plot point of a recalcitrant white leader dragging his heels in the face of black oppression is eerily relatable right now. Bringing the metaphor home, and to the present, I don’t fundamentally believe that Mayor de Blasio stands in opposition to civil rights. However, there comes a time, as Selma makes clear, when refusing to act creates results that are nearly as direct as massacre. This is not a new lesson. Why, then, are we so stubbornly continuing not to learn it?
Like any historical fiction, Selma is a product both of the facts and interpretation of the past, and of the relevance, aesthetics, and language of the moment in which it was made. Insisting on accuracy misses that rich synthesis entirely — it minimizes the film’s potential to be anything other than a textbook (never mind who writes textbooks). Selma hits close to home because, in spite of legislative changes, photo ops, and new commemorative holidays, we have made so little progress in the last 50 years. We may not have the luxury to wait until the “right” moment anymore.
Weaving together the aesthetic and the historic is the film’s strength. Director of Photography Bradford Young, whose artwork “Bynum Cutler” appeared in Creative Time’s excellent exhibition funkgodjazz&medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn, is a subtle force here. There are two main shots that we expect from Hollywood: gigantic sweeping vistas and well-lit close-ups of beautiful faces. Young delivers both impeccably, treating them with equivalent intimacy. I can think of no other recent film that so carefully highlights the value of the individual face as a way to understand group mentality. Each expression is a synecdoche for the complex emotions of the whole. And in those close-up shots, the clammy, hovering sense of surveillance never quite falls away. The audience is made complicit in this: no one is safe because someone is always watching. It is these moments, showing the power of the group alongside the fragility of individuals, that speak to me with far more resonance than the interactions between President Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson) and Dr. King (the powerful David Oyelowo). No matter what happened behind closed doors, or was printed on paper, Selma is a story of the people.
History has always been something with which we take liberties. To focus Selma’s merit on a debate about accuracy is unnecessarily reductive. Tracking what liberties we take — and how those liberties shift in meaning over time — provides us with opportunity to learn. This is a film of our time. Daily life around me confirms it. In such a resonant moment, correctness has less value than questioning.
Selma opens in wide release across the US today, January 9. For tickets and showtimes, visit selmamovie.com.
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