I’m not sure there’s ever been a film with a more timely release than Selma! In the midst of nationwide marches, die ins, shut downs and boycotts protesting the multitude of unarmed black and brown people slain by governing authorities–with no recourse–this film is oxygen for a nation dying to breathe. Selma powerfully depicts essential truths about our nation’s past and simultaneously connects the dots to our present predicament. You can’t watch this film without noticing striking parallels between then and now. Selma is a startling reminder of how much hasn’t changed; despite having our first African American president and self-identifying as a “post-racial” nation.
That said, there has been incremental progress made over the past fifty years since Bloody Sunday took place on the Edmund Pettus Bridge (March 7, 1965). Things are clearly not the same as they were…we no longer have white only bathrooms, lunch counters, or elections. African Americans don’t have to pay poll taxes, qualify for grandfather clauses, or pass literacy tests in order to vote anymore. It’s no longer politically correct or socially unacceptable for a Governor to publically vow to uphold “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” as George Wallace of Alabama did in 1963. Most people have ceased championing segregation as a virtuous ethic and the vast majority of Christians no longer tout it as something that Scripture affirms. Furthermore, it’s no longer permissible for Euro-Americans to openly call African Americans “niggers” or make to them enter business establishments through the backdoor. Thus, there has undoubtly been progress made; yet, things remain eerily unchanged!
In spite of seeing ourselves as “post-racial,” we’ve merely made incremental progress regarding racial justice. Police continue to use excessive force against socially conscious citizens who are well within their constitutional rights to peacefully assemble (see footage of Ferguson protest), especially against our nation’s black, brown, and poor citizenry. There are still an overabundance of Jimmie Lee Jackson’s, unarmed African (and Hispanic) American youth needlessly killed by police today. In fact, “black men are 21 times as likely as their white peers to be killed by police.”[i] Moreover, African Americans are still being legislatively denied the right to vote in addition to being denied other constitutional rights through what Michelle Alexander has coined “the New Jim Crow.” It is estimated that nationally 1 of every 13 African Americans is unable to vote (due to felon disenfranchisement laws).
In the seminal text The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Alexander shows that today there are currently “more African-American adults under correctional control, in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War.”[ii] Alexander then goes on to describe how our nation functions as a racial caste system; she defines racial caste as a racial group locked into an inferior position by law and custom. Alexander says that “a primary function of any racial caste system is to define the meaning of race in its time. Slavery defined what it meant to be black (a slave), and Jim Crow defined what it meant to be black (a second-class citizen). Today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what it means to be black.”[iii] This prophetic proclamation is statistically validated. African Americans constitute only 12 percent of our nation’s population, yet represent 40 percent of the nation’s prison inmates. Therefore, despite any progress that’s been made, we must keep things in perspective!
The two most powerful scenes in the film were Jimmie Lee Jackson’s murder and King’s eulogy at his funeral. Watching the police profile, brutalize, and ultimately murder Jackson was unnerving, it left me feeling vulnerable. This scene forces you to connect Jackson’s killing to Tamir Rice’s, Oscar Grant’s, and the multitude of other unarmed African Americans who have suffered the same fate. At Jackson’s funeral, King asks “who shot Jimmie Lee Jackson?” This question of accountability, of responsibility, is permanently embedded within the communal psyche of African Americans. We want, better yet demand to know, who’s being held accountable for desecrating our families, pillaging our communities, and murdering our children. We’re not only interested in the individual who pulled the trigger; we also want to identify the systems, structures, and institutions that embolden this individual to pull the trigger. Furthermore, we want to determine which entities are willing to provide sanctuary for such instigators of violence in the aftermath of such tragedies and meet with them in order to illustrate why their actions are so problematic. King’s eulogy illuminates these desire and sheds light on the various entities who were culpable in this tragedy. This poignant oratory moment is a summons to us today. It’s a clarion call to wade into the murky waters of racial discrimination and the complexities of combating institutional injustice.
As powerful as Selma was, no film is above reproach. The director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb did an astonishing job depicting the fervor of the movement, but there’s one gaping hole in their presentation. It’s a void that many probably didn’t notice and even after I highlight it, others still won’t fully recognize its significance. Nevertheless, as a historian of the movement and someone who’s had the privilege of meeting a number of the people depicted in the film, it’s a flaw that I noticed immediately because of its pertinence to the movement itself. Selma’s fundamental flaw is the absence of freedom songs and chants. From beginning to end, of the actual film that is, Selma is devoid of music. The actors do not partake in one single song or chant throughout the entire film! You see them moving their mouths as if they’re singing in the final scenes, and then they cut to original footage and you see the actual participants of the movement singing, but still even here, there’s no audio of the song itself.
There is no Civil Rights Movement apart from the music! The chants and freedom songs were the theological foundation that the movement was based upon; they inspired hope and provided courage to protesters who were literally putting their lives on the line for the pursuit of freedom and democracy. Whenever protesters got scared, they turned to song. Whenever they needed to be reminded of the Spirit’s presence with them, they began to sing spirituals. These songs and chants reminded them of their true purpose, of God’s truth in the face of evil, and of their solidarity with one another. These protest embodied Romans 12:1– they were offering their bodies to God as a living sacrifice for the sake of their neighbors and the good of this nation.
The renowned activist, historian and performer Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagan said that the freedom songs “were a natural outpouring [of the movement], evidencing the life force of the fight for freedom.” Elaborating on this she says freedom songs were “documents created by a collective voice…During this Movement, the masses came singing and the songs they sang are essential documents. If you don’t pay attention to the specificity of the songs they chose at a particular time, around a specific situation, you miss an opportunity to hear masses of people speak. It is not just enough to hear the voices of the speakers who speak at the mass meeting. It is also very important to know what was created as an articulate voice by those hundreds of people who gathered as a part of that struggle.”[iv]
Thus, the absence of songs and chants–which could seem insignificant and trivial–is actually a fundamental blemish in the film. In forsaking the significance of songs and chants, the film unintentionally diminishes the movement’s theological undergirding. Johnson Reagan speaks to the inherent connection between the songs and the movement this way:
For many people like me, the highest point of our lives was when we gathered in those mass meetings, and when we marched… we were bonded to each other, not because we went to school together, or were in the same social club. Not because we worked on the same job, but because we had decided that we would put everything on the line to fight racism in our community. Every participant in a local campaign had to decide to take that risk. We had to decide to leave the safety of being obedient to segregation to go to a place where we might lose everything we had. We found in this new place a fellowship that we could not have imagined before we decided to stand. And sometimes in celebration of that coming together you could hear the hymn, ‘What a Fellowship.’
‘What a fellowship, what a joy divine Leaning on the everlasting arms What a blessedness, what a peace is mine Leaning on the everlasting arms…’”[v]
Nevertheless, Selma is a great film! Everyone should see it! We should all be changed by it! As believers, we should receive Selma as a contemporary “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” as a call to respond to injustice. This call must compel us to get off of the sidelines and into the work of freedom fighting– not for ourselves, or for the African American community, but for the Kingdom! Moreover, we must enter in, not in our own strength or wisdom, but guided by the Spirit. As ambassadors of the Kingdom, our purpose on earth is to make God’s name known and love shown; thus, acquiescing to an oppressive status quo and apathetically responding to injustice is to jettison our mission. May God’s love always be at the heart of our activism, with our mobilizing rooted in prayer and sustained by the Spirit!
[ii] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, The New Press, New York; New York, p 180.
[iii] Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 197.