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Negotiating Past and Present With the Film Selma

02/18/2015 03:41 pm ET | Updated Apr 19, 2015

The film Selma reminds us how much we can learn from watching a historically based movie, even when we already know most of the details. In this "based on a true story" film, while we are not given a great deal of new information, we are given an important new perspective on the moments leading up to the fifty mile march from Selma to Montgomery. This is precisely why the arts remain so vital, because of the way artists sort things out for us, each in their own unique way. This is certainly the case with director Ava DuVernay and her latest film Selma. It left me exactly where I want to leave my students - always learning...

I remain fascinated with the relationship between history and the arts, reminded of how history informs art. Watching this film allowed me, once again, to understand that history books are vital for the recording of dates, events and names but can't render some of the deeper textures and tones of human suffering, or the quieter details of the lives that are so integral to our cultural heritage. Selma brought us into some of those private moments, into some of the other lives lost or profoundly changed by the depicted events. While keeping our focus on Dr. King, DuVernay also made sure we saw the contribution women made to the Civil Rights Movement: Coretta Scott King, Annie Lee Cooper, Amelia Boynton, Mahalia Jackson, Viola Liuzzo, Richie Jean Jackson and so many others.

The film begins in 1964 with Martin Luther King Jr.'s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in Europe. During his speech we are transported back to America, to Birmingham, Alabama to see 4 Little Girls descend a staircase shortly before being killed in a forceful explosion - the film's first depiction of violence. The next moment takes us to Annie Lee Cooper's quiet attempt to register to vote. Thus forms the triangle of core narrative elements in the film, Dr King's peaceful pursuit for equality, set in the context of violence in the pivotal Civil Rights Movement, at the moment where Black Americans wanted to exercise their right to vote. Certainly there are many more than these three, those such as politics, geography, religion and gender for example. But the director keeps us focused on these main points that begin the film.

After watching this rendition of the Dr. King - Selma story, which also included so many other contributors to the cause, I was encouraged to do some sorting out of this history for myself - do the same kind of research I beseech my students to engage in no matter what their artistic or academic goals are. The extensive process led me to construct my own cultural utterance, encouraged me to share this collection of thoughts about my spectatorship and reflect on some of the circumstances surrounding the film and its director as they are unfolding in front of me in these days before the 87th Academy Awards - February 22, 2015.

As the film stayed with me, as I was doing the research on the elements that called for more exploration, I watched the February 8, 2015 60 Minutes segment where the late Bob Simon spoke with DuVernay about the film. During the broadcast, I realized something pivotal, something that was very important to my spectatorship and understanding of the film in today's context. It had to do with the bridge, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the bridge that became a metaphor. As I usually do in such moments, I went to the dictionary definition of the word. A bridge joins two points, is a constructed structure "over a depression or obstacle." That is exactly what seeing the bridge did for me, joined two places in time, brought past and present together in the now. This was especially poignant when watching the 60 Minutes segment reminding the audience that the bridge bears the same name today.

In every course I teach I use the following passage from Edward W. Said's book Culture and Imperialism. "Appeals to the past are among the commonest of strategies in interpretations of the present. What animates such appeals is not only disagreement about what happened in the past and what the past was, but uncertainty about whether the past really is past, over and concluded, or whether it continues, albeit in different forms, perhaps." Said goes on to say on a later page that: "...there is no just way in which the past can be quarantined from the present. Past and present inform each other, each implies the other..."

These words take on powerful meaning in relation to my experience of this film. Each image was so exquisitely rendered with the use of colors, tones and lighting that created an atmosphere that took me back in time. I was emotionally transported in so many scenes, much like the feeling one gets when seeing a smoky photograph from long ago. While encased in that world, what struck me as I watched the film, listened to David Oyelowo, was the real-life gentleness of Dr. King's voice, the angished screams of a mother holding her dying son, all set against the violence of the times. This juxtaposition is core to the power of the film.

Last week I taught a class on how the arts render "Moments That Signal Profound Change" and for that lecture I read this quote from EL Doctrow's essay entitled "Address to the Students of the Tisch School for the Arts, New York University, September 14 2001." I use it because what he outlines is critical for young artists to hear. "In a democracy a work of art can be brought into being by nothing more than a private excitement in the mind of the artist, a word or two, something he sees in the street, a musical phrase, but just as likely by a presiding anger in his breast or the sorrowful burden of his knowledge of the past."

Such was the case I expect for Ava DuVernay but I was thrilled to hear it in her own words. "History is to be interpreted through the lens of the people who are reading it and experiencing it on the page or at the time. And this is my interpretation." This was her response to Simon's inquiry about the controversy surrounding the film's depiction of Lyndon Johnson. Simon also placed the director in today's context noting that women directors are only 4 percent of the working directors in Hollywood and women directors of color "virtually unheard of."

The Academy Awards have often been criticized for their lack of diversity and according to Brent Lang there are obvious reasons why. "The Academy voters are 94 percent Caucasian, 77 percent Male, 2 percent African American and less than 2 percent Latino." Striking numbers indeed and then Lang goes on to state the obvious - "not reflective of American public or ticket buyers." It was not lost on me that I was watching 60 Minutes on CBS, the same network that covered the historic moments recreated in the film. In 1965 Bill Stout brought the events into the homes of Americans, which was pivotal in changing hearts and minds.

As part of his introduction to the segment, Simon noted that Black Americans were given impossible tests to get on voting rolls. At the end of this exploration, I was left comparing that fact to the difficulty DuVernay had getting nominated for Best Director for Selma. I guess she didn't pass the test...