Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” won’t open until Christmas and it’s set in 1964, but there’s no recent movie that feels more like this particular moment. By the time Common raps “That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up” over the closing credits, the connection has already been made.. Like most great men, Martin Luther King, Jr. has been ossified by time, placed on a pedestal so he becomes both awesome and remote, a protagonist in a closed chapter of America’s dark past. But while “Selma” shows that much has changed — we’re not likely to hear an acting governor call any race “mongrel” again — it’s easy to feel how much has not. Local authorities no reason to prosecute a white man for killing a black man, so the Federal government steps in to investigate: Is it 2014, or 1964? Alabama or Missouri or New York City?
One of the things that’s most galvanizing about “Selma” — and we’ll talk more about others when it’s closer to release — is its focus on King as a political activist, and not simply a inspirational figure. Duvernay, who was not given permission to use King’s public speeches, is deprived of the power of King’s words, and even though she comes up with fine facsimiles, it’s his actions that speak loudest of all. What comes through most clearly — and, for a movie released by a major Hollywood studio, most surprisingly — is his shrewdness as a tactician, not merely the awe-inspiring courage of his convictions. When David Oyelowo’s King stands toe-to-toe with Tom Wilkinson’s Lyndon B. Johnson, his goal is not to move the president’s heart but to force his hand, playing to his vanity and warning him that failure to support full and unfettered voting rights for African-Americans will forever tarnish Johnson’s legacy and eclipse his prized Civil Rights Act.
In Selma, King meets with members from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, who have been waging a grass-roots campaign in the black community for two years. That’s all well and good, King says, but he’s interested in “the white community,” the tens of millions of already-enfranchised voters whose failure to rally behind their cause is racism’s greatest ally. He explains that the purpose of his movement, as opposed to SNCC’s, is to disrupt, to inconvenience, and to draw the attention of the national media, whose reportage DuVernay uses alongside FBI field reports to act as a frame for King’s actions. It doesn’t matter what they accomplish, or what violence is visited upon them by the brutal local authorities, if the cameras aren’t there to carry it back the cozy living rooms of white families.
Hours after seeing “Selma,” I was in Times Square, where hundreds of police officers massed under a giant TV screen flashing images of NBC’s live “Peter Pan” as they prepared to meet with protestors. As I walked back to my train, I saw a man with a sign reading “No Justice, No Peace” and “I Can’t Breathe” — the last words Eric Garner uttered as he was choked to death by a police officer — sitting on a bucket in the middle of 8th Avenue as cabs jammed the intersection and furiously honked their horns. I rode home reading accounts of local newscasts that either ignored the protests or focused on whether or not they might disrupt the morning commute. The word “disruptive” has been so co-opted by Silicon Valley techjerks that it’s easy to forget that disruption — inconveniencing and being inconvenienced — is integral to almost any political movement. It’s rarer now than it was half a century ago to see open expressions of bigotry from public officials; an unintended lesson of the Civil Rights movement’s success is that if you’re going to violate someone’s civil rights, it’s better to do it when there are no cameras around. “Selma” reminds us that it sometimes takes an effort to get the enemy to show his true face, and even if that face has changed, the method remains the same.