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Dreaming of Dignity: The Movie "Selma"

02/02/2015 03:18 pm ET | Updated Mar 31, 2015

Hollywood has been about fantasy, right? About emotions inspired and provoked, about being stimulated--for some of us--and at times even transformed. I saw "Selma" today and I have to say I was filled with so many of the emotions that for me mark a movie experience as being profound, memorable, and in this case so very worthy of attention and appreciation by governing bodies of groups that give awards--you know like the Oscars. But then perhaps awards are but a distraction, and can be self-congratulatory as in "Look how great we are, how far we've come, that we can give awards to movies that portray something we've clearly overcome." Or, as when a maverick like Michael Moore gets a bow, there is something of a thinning of the drama of the particular movie, that can easily become conversation over dinner, only to later drift into thin air.

"Selma" probably does not need a bow from the Academy, though a lack of mention of David Oyelowo as a nominee for best actor, seems not just a snub but really bad judgment. But enough about the Academy, about which I obviously still have the fantasy of it acting justly or with critical discrimination. So, a propos of discrimination--no pun originally intended--I have to wonder whether a large public is not quite ready to reflect on the events and cruelties portrayed in the film, alongside some of the most moving collaboration and humanity this country might have ever seen.

There can be arguments over whether Lyndon Johnson was portrayed "fairly", but that too seems besides the point. He was portrayed as a hard assed pragmatist, stuck as many leaders are, in their own timeline and agendas. But the film itself, combines a set of history lessons with a mirror into what remains of our tendency to discriminate, to take the law into our own hands. It also forces a public, that might pay attention, to in fact pay attention to the fact that something as basic as the right to vote, was downright impossible for Black people in the South, before the march from Selma to Montgomery.

The movie is actually in essence a huge step away from the distractions that can keep us stuck in not seeing the larger picture. Everything needs a context and perspective. For many, Martin Luther King Jr. was too meek, too mild, too late, too late to protest our involvement in Vietnam (I remember that speech at the Riverside Church in New York in April,1967). But no longer young and easily contemptuous of most people just about, I realize how radical and brave, how eloquent and passionate he really was, and how that--all of it--should be appreciated. We tend to think of things in black and white (all the puns are coming and even if they be irreverent I'll let them stay). We tend to characterize people as right or left, liberal or conservative, racist or the victim of racism.

We don't tend to see the commonalities of the Holocaust and slavery and segregation, because there are contests as to who gets to have what qualification. And there is relative disdain, it seems to me, for the white liberals of yesterday or today who basked in their own limelight and felt good about marching or protesting or about being on the right side.

But isn't that part of what it's all about, always or near there? That we feel good about doing good, about connecting to a larger group of which we are a part? About belonging, and about connecting to what may be most giving, most honest, most dignified about ourselves as well? Even with my own wish to be less harsh towards the white people, like myself, who felt violated by the lack of civil rights back in the day, I can realize, and have before, that to be part of America has been to be racist. Lyndon Johnson, through the venerable acting of Tom Wilkinson, said discrimination, and the violence that was going on in the South, was not a white or black problem but an American one. And yes, it was verbiage and geared to harness an emotional response, but that doesn't mean it wasn't true. Or that it isn't true.

I know that some of us are nostalgic for the 60's, precisely because it seemed like a time of real, necessary, and possible social change. I have known younger people who have envied the time, wished their generation had that kind of passion, passionate hope. It was also a time when people changed their minds and hearts, and even if they didn't, they still had to changed their laws--which in turned changed a lot of other things.

Today it's hard to have a conversation about global warming, gay marriage, war and oil, even about racism as it stands both at home or abroad, without one party become the outlaw, as standing against God, in whose name freedom and justice are used a whole lot less than seem conservative positions banning liberty rather than defending it.

A lot of us are guilty of racist practices and beliefs, of--as Tim Wise discusses--benefitting, directly or indirectly, from racist practices. That doesn't mean, though, that some of us don't want to talk about it and make it, and get it. better.

Which might mean, that apart from the film "Selma" getting the nod for possible Best Song and Best Picture at the Oscars--its kind of being ignored--could be seen as an opportunity. That the real ideal would be for the film to be judged by enough people in this country as being worthy, outstanding as a drama, and needing the discussion of where we were then, how it seems to us now, and about now what.