By Devang Pathak:
A defining scene in Selma has Dr. Martin Luther King, played brilliantly by actor David Oyelowo, say “I would rather that people be upset and hate me than be bleeding or dead.” Can you imagine any modern leader saying this?
Selma is a 2014 American movie about the march from Selma to Montgomery, in the state of Alabama, to protest and demand equal voting rights for the black community. The movie directed by Ava DuVernay brilliantly captures the intense situation which existed in the America of 1960s as the revolutionary Civil Rights Movement lead by Dr King, became a force of cultural and social change.
Selma is a strong contender for the awards season this time because of the universality of the themes it depicts. We witness the polarising consequences of change through two diverse groups- the liberals and humanists who seek the change and the conservatives who feel under attack for their centuries old way of life. I can’t help relate the messages of the movie to 2015.
For America, Selma comes at the right moment. The events of Ferguson and Staten Island have raised several questions about the extent to which race relations have normalised in the country. The riots and racist undertones in many of the events have left people in the lurch as to the right course to be pursued. Selma reminds people of Dr. Martin Luther King’s non-violent resolve to attain the state he envisioned in his “I Have A Dream” speech and the path which still lies incomplete despite having a black president for 6 years. It reminds the country of the sacrifices which were made for the rights they enjoy today and how it is in honour of these martyrs that efforts need to be made to eliminate racism.
For India, Selma raises a question of identity. Dr. Martin Luther King was indoctrinated with non-violence as a means of protest, by Bayard Rustin who had studied Mahatma Gandhi’s methods of non-violence. Dr. King had even visited India to learn more about the Mahatma’s life and had credited him for inspiring the non-violent Civil Rights Movement. Selma will make you question how Gandhi’s teachings, which inspired historic movements around the world, are being forgotten in his own country.
The spate of violent, intolerant protests and demands to celebrate his killer and thereby violence, make us question- are we really the India Gandhi dreamt of? The deplorable state of backward caste and tribes, rights of women, use of religion in politics and vice versa, are all causes which Gandhi fought for and they still ail the Indian society. Now is the time for us to study and revisit some of his teachings rather than question his sex life, his credibility or if he deserved to be shot in cold blood.
Any reel depiction of real-life events arouses some or the other controversy and Selma is no exception. While the film and the performances are hailed cinematically, there is a heated debate on the accuracy of the portrayal of characters such as that of President Lyndon B. Johnson. The movie shows Mr. Johnson as being hesitant to introduce the Voting Rights Act with the same level of urgency that Dr. King urged. Many historians and experts have even pointed out a discrepancy in the timeline of the events in the film and in real life.
What we, especially in India, often forget is that it is not the job of the mainstream filmmaker to create 100% historically accurate movies. A movie which is not a documentary, will always place importance on story-telling and make many changes for cinematic integrity. Every movie based on true events should not be taken as the end but a means to raise further questions and seek our own answers.
Despite these controversies, watch Selma for the masterful cinematic detailing of events. Good movies often leave an after taste of intellectual stimulation. In that respect, Selma fits the bill perfectly.