How much more are you drawn to a story when you know the hero dies? I’m enthralled by how much our protagonist can accomplish, and how deeply the actor is able to reel me in before the inevitable. Selma, the new film by my director crush, Ava DuVernay, is a wonderful example of subverting that concept. It’s a powerful film–not about the life of Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, but about a particular accomplishment in his life, not punctuated by his assassination. Now, there are so many folks writing about this film–discussing its nuanced look at the good Reverend Doctor (got a little bit of sexy in there), the hightlighted role of women in the narrative (five women particularly, with Corretta Scott King as the anchor, played exquisitely by Carmen Ejogo), and the controversy of LBJ’s (no, not Lebron) representation regarding his decision on the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Articles have appeared in Rolling Stone and Variety and countless other outlets, lauding the director’s perspective, and the actors’ performances–especially David Oyelowo‘s inhabiting of MLK. So, instead of parroting what others have said, let me step back a moment and speak on the lens through which I saw this film.
I’d already seen Ava’s (yeah, I call her Ava) other two feature films, I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere. The latter’s script, which I’ve now read three times, compelled me to watch the former. But there was a long waiting period before Middle of Nowhere was available to view–I’d missed the chance to see it in theaters. When it finally hit Netflix, I was so eager that I waited. Not procrastinated, but waited. It was a movie that had a lot of hype behind it and I bought into it. That meant I wanted to bring it down a notch and just watch the film as a film, not as a great film by the first black woman to win best director at Sundance. The need to chill for a bit is comparable to taking a deep breath before shooting a free throw. I just wanted to watch a good movie.
If memory serves me, I waited until I was in my hotel during downtime at a conference. I also pulled up the script on my phone to read along with some of my favorite scenes. Unorthodox? Maybe. But it was the words that fascinated me in the first place, so why not invite them to the viewing party? Simply put, I enjoyed it. The intimacy and vulnerability of the relationships bring the characters into a flesh-and-blood reality. When I learned about Selma, I was ready.
My wife and I went with friends (another married couple) and shortly after the previews ended, an elderly woman was rolled into position toward the front of the theater. She had a deep, phlegmy cough that I thought would persist throughout the film, but it thankfully subsided. What floated to the surface of my mind after her fit of coughing ended and the opening credits began, was that she has a front row seat to this movie and probably had a front row seat to this Movement. She was old enough that she would have been near my age during the events of the film. Perhaps she was a bystander who shook King’s hand before lining up to demonstrate. Maybe she provided food and supplies to supporters who flocked at the beckoning call of Martin Luther King after some of the most horrific images of violence to have appeared on television for the first time stirred hearts, giving credence to the need for civil rights advocacy. She may have been a woman whipped by a police officer atop a horse; run down like huntsmen chasing foxes–or like overseers chasing runaway slaves. Her church-mother-like affirmations as she spoke back to the screen in some scenes confirmed my idea that her feels about her civil rights hadn’t dissipated one bit. Despite being somewhat hindered by age, she had earned her seat.
Ava must have been peeking into some of our windows when it came to this movie. One scene even mirrored my personal life in an uncanny way when King’s friend and colleague, Ralph Abernathy, quoted scripture from a passage my pastor had taught from that very morning. King has a “why has thou forsaken me” moment while in a jail cell when Abernathy reminds him that with God, one can accomplish anything, so why worry? You can create a path, if righteous, and though it may seem tedious, how else can you create a path but one stone at a time? Rock by rock.
Selma resonated with me for as much as what occurred in the film as what surrounded it. The film was nominated for several Golden Globes, though it only won for Best Original Song. Though it’s release did not threaten war with anyone, with this kind of momentum swinging into Oscar season, I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about this film for a while. AND she’s my boo…directorily speaking, that is.