We live in a world that sometimes gets it right, where Dr. King wins the Nobel Peace Prize. We live in a world that sometimes gets it wrong, or indeed just doesn’t get it at all. We live in a world where a human rights activist receives the accolades his work so richly deserves, but we also live in a world where little girls in churches get killed.
Many have written about the fluctuations between the ridiculous and the sublime, but perhaps a more apt juxtaposition would be the one between the sublime and the horrific. Ava DuVernay’s Selma shows our humanity at its worst, the violence of which we’re all capable, and our sinfulness — in particular the United States’ long, shameful history of racism — in all its wretched repetitiveness. But the film also refuses to cede to the night and reminds us that there is much light to be seen. We witness a community of African-Americans fighting for their right to vote, fighting for their inherent dignity, and fighting, not with guns or fists, but with intelligence, serenity, and hope.
In many ways, Selma is a stations of the cross for our time. It does what Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ could not do. That is, Selma makes us turn away our eyes and flinch at ourselves — not because of the gratuitous violence, Mr. Gibson — but because of its strikingly raw depiction of the cruelty and corruption we are capable of.
Selma takes the cultural wound of racism that is still very real and very raw and indicts its audience. No matter how far away we think we may be from 1960s Alabama, Selma makes us very aware that we aren’t very far at all, as the events of Ferguson and death of Eric Garner on Staten Island have made painfully clear. We are not just observers of a film. As long as we participate in a society that implicitly endorses racist systems and structures, we are culpable, too.
We cringe and we turn away, not because what we’re seeing is alien to us, but because it is all too familiar. It is the truth. We know that cruelty too well, and it is not just found in the white person on the screen, in 1960s Alabama, or the person sitting next to us. This is us.
Though our actions may not reach the heights of depravity that are found in the scenes in Selma, we see us. We see the worst of ourselves in the rage-strained necks and flailing limbs of the state troopers as they beat Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) to death. We see ourselves in the smug, condescending half-smile of the man at the voter registration office as he refuses Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) the right to vote. Or perhaps, most damning of all, we see ourselves in the averted eyes and bowed heads of those who allowed things to go on just as they were. As Dr. King said, “In the end we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Our sinfulness and the sinfulness of the world we live in is best encapsulated by something Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) says to her husband when speaking about the difficulties of being married to him — that the hardest thing of all is living in what she calls, “the constant fog of death.”
In today’s world, that fog manifests itself in myriad ways: war, religious extremism, terrorism, and, of course, racism. Having lost a great deal of its explicitness since the time of Selma, it has become more stealth, and as such, more pernicious.
The fog of death that Mrs. King speaks of can, at times, seem so real that you can almost feel its dampness in the air and on the skin. It can become so dense that it corrodes our soul, our spirit. It discourages us and makes us disengage. Worst of all, it makes us conform — and from conformity comes complicity. It is when we go along with things for the sake of going along with things and for lack of hope, that is when we become stuck with our heads down and our eyes averted. That is when we are truly culpable.
But there is a light. That is what Selma continually reminds us; it lets us know that we are not just the beatings with billyclubs and the stripping away of dignity. We are also the ones driving down from Boston to march, we are walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, holding the hands of our neighbor heading to Montgomery, we are the recognizing of the inherent dignity of all persons. We are on the cross, we are at the foot of the cross, and sometimes we have Christ lying lifelessly on our laps. This is our life, too.