THE BLOG
01/08/2015 06:31 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2015

What 'Selma' Can Teach in the Classroom

On a day terrorists attacked the soul and city of Paris, more than 500 educators came together on a bitterly, cold night in New York City for a private screening of the film Selma. Some traveled for more than 100 miles to watch the film and discuss "hope" and "healing" with the film's director, Ava DuVernay. Among the dignitaries in the audience were UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and his wife. The UN Secretary-General met with DuVernay immediately following the film and told the audience he hopes Selma will "inspire people around the world to do good."

The January 7th screening was a component of Paramount Pictures' educational outreach campaign on behalf of Selma, coordinated in association with BazanED, a service which provides free educational materials to the teaching community. The New York event culminated the Professional Teacher Development program which screened the film for educators in 45 cities nationwide during the first week of January 2015.

Selma is a historical drama directed by DuVernay and written by Paul Webb. It is based on the 1965 voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama that were led by Hosea Williams, James Bevel, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 legally desegregated the South, discrimination was still rampant, making it very difficult for African Americans to register to vote.

Director DuVernay also fielded questions from educators and explained that there has never been a major motion picture with Dr. King at the center. DuVernay said the film is a teaching tool that she hopes will trigger curiosity in students. However, she cautions that the film collapses 13 years into 120 minutes and hopes educators will fill in the history gaps in classrooms nationwide.

DuVernay also spoke about the difficulties of humanizing a legend. While Dr. King is considered a "great man" by many, she also wanted the audience to know Dr. King as an ordinary man. Ellen Flatley, from the 911 Memorial & Museum, attended the screening and said "seeing Dr. King take out the garbage struck me. It is such a simple thing we all do but he seemed like a regular man."

Some of the audience members questioned DuVernay about why she chose to depict Dr. King as a "smoker" and a man who had extra-marital affairs. DuVernay replied, "Dr. King achieved greatness. I want students to know that ordinary people can do the same."

Like any movie, there are some critics, particularly some historians, who question the accuracy over the depiction of President Lyndon Johnson. In the film, LBJ is portrayed as a tepid supporter of voting rights and a staunch opponent of the Selma march. One African American educator from New Jersey asked DuVernay about the criticism saying, "some believe President Johnson should be right alongside Dr. King as a hero of the Civil Rights movement." DuVernay said the film is not a documentary but a historical film and critics have hailed the movie as a film that embodies the heroism of Dr. King. Selma has already been nominated for four Golden Globe awards and there is already Oscar buzz.

When asked about the name of the movie, DuVernay said the name of the movie wasn't Dr. King -- it was Selma because it was about a community and how that community came together to "hope" and "heal." She also thanked the many brave men and women who fought for civil rights.

David Pickler, former President of the National School Boards Association and Founder of the American Public Education Foundation commented:

Ava DuVernay brings a critical period in American history to life in his brilliantly developed historical drama. The lessons of passionate advocacy and personal sacrifice in pursuit of our most significant rights and liberties are essential lessons for every American.

Adds Jeff Parness, founder of the New York Says Thank You Foundation:

Selma is a powerful window into the soul of a nation that we all need to understand. This is a great country. We still have work to do and always will when it comes to tolerance. This film shows that our democracy thrives and shines when everyone participates. Make seeing this film with your family one of those moments.


Paramount's outreach includes providing complimentary curriculum materials for middle and high school that meet Common Core State Standards and provides historical background on Selma and Voting Rights in America, and supported with 11 interdisciplinary lesson plans in history, English language arts, applied mathematics, art and geography. There are also additional materials available including video and photographic elements as well as printed resources to support the lessons.

BazanED's Expeditionary Learning campaign, unveiled to educators at the screening, encourages schools to take students to see Selma in the theaters. Those registering their events with BazanED will receive a complimentary DVD of the full film, when available, to teach SELMA to future classes. http://www.bazaned.com/