Selma and Civil Resistance

I went to see Selma over the weekend and my first thought as I walked out of the theatre was that Selma lives up to the hype. So often when I expect a movie to be great I can’t help but feel disappointed if the movie ends up being merely good. Not the case with Selma. It was a fantastic experience that exceeded my high expectations. Some may claim this is confirmation bias in action but I don’t think so as I tend to experience the reverse when I have high expectations for a film.

I also walked out there pretty indignant that David Oyelowo didn’t receive a Best Actor nomination. To be fair, I haven’t seen the other performances nominated but they each have to be pretty damn spectacular to warrant Oyelowo’s exclusion (and based on some reviews I’ve read, I’m skeptical that this is the case). His Martin Luther King, Jr. is a precise mix of humanity and gravitas. His King is both the familiar, inspirational leader that we celebrate today and a fallible man balancing the leadership of one of the most important civil rights movements of the 20th century with family life and his own occasional doubts. It must have been a hugely challenging role and Oyelowo didn’t miss a single beat.

It is equally bizarre that Ava DuVernay didn’t receive a Best Director nomination. Selma is full of powerful moments that in the hands of a less skilled director could have been overwrought or corny. From the way the Bloody Sunday scenes were shot to the intimate moment between MLK and Coretta Scott King (where according to IMDB DuVernay achieved such realistic tension by having Oyelowo pause for an uncomfortably long time before saying his line) lots of small but important decisions were made that really helped elevate this film. It’s a shame that DuVernay didn’t receive a nomination in a year so lacking in racial and gender diversity. More importantly it’s a shame because she deserves the recognition.

After watching Selma I also left with a slightly more uncommon opinion. I think President Lyndon Johnson comes off well in this film. The divide in this debate seems to be the “it’s historically inaccurate – LBJ was very supportive of the Civil Rights Movement” camp versus the “that’s missing the point because the film is about the movement and its perspective” camp. Though they disagree with whether or not the portrayal of LBJ is an acceptable or unacceptable twisting of history, both camps basically acknowledge that the President is portrayed as more antagonist to the movement than he was in real life. Coming from a place of relative ignorance (I’m catching up on my American history being a new resident to the country) I was actually left with a positive impression of LBJ in the context of the Civil Rights Movement. I sympathized with the President when he said to King “you’ve got one big issue, I’ve got a hundred and one.” I understood the difficult position he was in by wanting to support the movement but needing, but virtue of his status as a politician, to take politics into consideration. And I was glad in the end when the President rebuked the racist Governor Wallace and did the right thing by signing the Voting Rights Act. Historically precise or not, I didn’t think LBJ was an unsympathetic character in this account of a key moment in the fight for racial equality.

Also, the interactions between MLK and LBJ throughout Selma served an important purpose. It underscored why there was a need for a Civil Rights Movement in the first place and why it adopted the strategy and tactics that it did. Because the American political system (like so many others) is structured such that even someone as sympathetic to the cause as LBJ needed to have his hand forced from the outside. It reminded us that activism is inextricable from politics.

Which brings me to the thing I loved most about Selma: its attention to civil resistance as a strategic choice. MLK and the Civil Rights Movement is famous for its strict adherence to the principle of non-violent resistance. Selma does a fantastic job demonstrating the underappreciated fact that practicing non-violence was not just a moral decision but also a strategic calculation. There is a great scene where King meets with student leaders and explains that the personality of the local sheriff will be key to determining the movement’s next steps. When King learns that Sheriff Jim Clark is a racist prone to overreaction, King knows he can use that to his movement’s advantage. He knows how the optics will play out if his movement remains peaceful in the face of police brutality. He knows this behaviour will make headlines and place much needed pressure on the administration.

I learned about civil resistance from the very best: Dr. Erica Chenoweth.* I was in the first class at the University of Denver that she taught on the subject and I’ve been fascinated  by the subject ever since. I loved that Selma highlighted many of the things we learned about in class, like Civil Rights Movement participants role-playing non-violent resistance in preparation for an event. As civil resistance movements continue to be an important part of political and social change in our world, it was gratifying to see Selma offer such an on-point portrayal.

I was lucky to have the opportunity to spend 10 weeks learning about civil resistance and its remarkable efficacy in the Civil Rights Movement and elsewhere. If you don’t have quite that much time to commit, allow me to offer the next best thing: Dr. Chenoweth’s Tedx Talk in Boulder a couple of years ago. There’s a lot of details, case studies, and fascinating data where this came from but the video is a great overview of the basics.

My weekend was well spent watching Selma and looking back to my civil resistance class. I can’t think of a better way to mark Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

*Full disclosure: In addition to being a former student of Dr. Chenoweth, I am one of her many RAs (though I do not work on her civil resistance projects). Any time I promote her stuff it is a personal choice I’ve made because I think her work is important.