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As we sat in the lounge of Selma's historic St. James Hotel, one by one onlookers came streaming in. Like any fan approaching larger than life figures in person, they were at first hesitant, not wanting to seem overzealous or forward -- but eventually, one by one, each person gave up all pretenses and went up and asked for a picture, a handshake, a hug.
Most of us stood along the sides of the room soaking it all it: the recollections, the personalities, the passion... these were quite the moments to behold. Being on a movie set, one would expect that the people being gawked at would be famous actors or some other movie-making big shots, but in this case we were on the set of the film, Selma, a recounting of the winter of 1965 when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and others mobilized in Alabama to march from Selma to Montgomery to fight for voting rights for African Americans. The stars were not the actors, but members of our delegation who took part in the original march and who now returned to watch the filming of that historic moment -- folks like Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery, Rev. C.T. Vivian and George, who still lives in the area, marched in 1965, and returned to be a Selma extra.
And while the Selma story is much bigger than the filming on that particular day, the visit served as a reminder of the power of this film and its potential to connect the the past to the present, to break down the one-demensionalizing that can occur around political leadership, and to lift up the complexities involved in sustaining movements for social change.
Selma is a story that has not been told at this scale, so being allowed a peek behind to curtain to see it unfold was truly an honor.
I have also recently viewed the movie in its entirety. It was not the final cut, but it was done enough for me to offer some thoughts about why this may be one of the most important films to be released in a while. Please keep in mind, that this post is not a review of the positives and negatives of the film, but an unapologetic plea that you to take the time to go see Selma. You will not be disappointed, and here is why...
You Will Learn.
While many of us may feel like we know about the Selma marches in general: Bloody Sunday, George Wallace, Edmund Pettus Bridge, etc., this movie will give more meat to what we may think we know. Certainly not a documentary in its presentation, content or style, Selma packs in a ton of content that I didn't even know that I didn't know and I am grateful that it did.
It is Beautifully Acted.
As I said, the screening I saw may or may not be the final edit, but I cannot think of any of the scenes that I would cut. There are some wonderful moments shared between the actors that stir the soul: the conversation between MLK (David Oyelowo) and John Lewis (Stephan James), when Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint) attempts to register to vote, and the back-and-forth between President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) in the Oval Office.
It is Beautifully Filmed.
From the beginning of this film, it is clear that director Ava DuVernay is not only making a movie that recounts the happenings of an event, but she wants us to feel, at the core of our souls, the depths of pain and the peaks of joy that bookend the everyday tensions and logistics of movement building. The violent scenes were sudden and gut-wrenching, the conversations between MLK and Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) tender and honest, and the marches felt all too real in emotion and physicality.
MLK Becomes a Little More Human.
At one point during the evening while on set, I asked David Oyelowo what it was like for him, a Brit, to play MLK, this larger-than-life American political and religious figure. He said that NOT being an American gave him the ability to play MLK as a human, whereas American actors might have had too much of the iconic MLK ingrained in them to play the human side. While I am sure that others might have played MLK well, Oyelowo, was wonderful and as I watched him navigate the less admirable aspects of MLK, the person, I could feel the turmoil and conflict that must have dwelt within MLK himself.
Oprah is Not Going to Produce Junk.
Seriously. When was the last time that she produced something that wasn't powerfully done. I did have the honor of breaking bread with her and in and my interactions, it was clear, Oprah did not see Selma as simply a project to be completed, but a powerful story that needed to be told. Sure, the studios will do all they can to do make sure Selma makes money, but, from conversations about how this movie is to be shared and resourced, they are also doing the work to make sure that this movie has impact beyond the cinema walls.
Church Gets a Reminder.
For those who know me, you know that I am not a huge "Go Church!" cheerleader kind of Christian, nor am I one who wallows and laments about the shifting nature and influence that the church has today. At the same time, I have always been frustrated when people talk about the civil rights movement and fail to recognize that at the heart of that movement was the Christian church and other partners in faith. In today's religious landscape is seems that the progressive faith community has become lazy on issues of justice, resting on the laurels of these days, while others have decided that people of faith are only prosperity-seeking fools who hate gay people. I was grateful for Selma's soft touch at sharing some of the people who were central to this time -- and people of faith committed to lives of justice.
It Will Inspire Conversations.
While there are some who may choose to believe that Selma is some left-wing liberal propaganda made in response to Ferguson and New York and the relationships between black America and the police, not only did this project begin well before Ferguson -- but, ahem, the events in Selma actually happened. So aside from those who are not interested in conversations in any form, Selma provides plenty of conversation topics for folks to tackle over a meal after the film: race, voting rights, movement building, solidarity, allies, personal costs, civil disobedience, political strategy, leadership development, etc.
It Will Make You Sad For Today.
At almost every moment, Selma, reminded me how far the United States has NOT come in terms of race relationship and institutional oppression. As I watched the film, I was constantly watching two films, the one in front of me on the big screen and the one that had been playing on my TV screen from Ferguson: the violence, the hate, the struggle, the movements, the people, the pain... and every once in a while a glimmer of hope. After I left the screening, I felt a bit sick about what was happening in our country: my own privileged place in the world, the inability for people to acknowledge institutional oppression, and the physical violence that some folks were facing every day. Selma did not wrap this up in a tidy bow for me, and that's okay...
It Will Give You Hope.
At the same time, this movie was not about making people feel guilty or shamed -- though that might not be a bad first reaction -- but more about the power of movement building, the impact of civil disobedience and the calling that each of us has to step into the fray. Just as I was punched in the gut a bit, I was equally inspired to find ways to keep in the conversation and find ways to step into places where I may be useful. This engagement is not simply a one time thing, but as we are shown in Selma, a lifetime of moments of choice that will ebb and flow as much as life itself.
Selma opens in a few markets on Christmas Day and will go into wider distribution in January. I hope you will take the time to gather your friends and family and step back in time and go see Selma -- a film about our past that still has so much to say about the present.