Amid the controversies over Academy Award nominations and presidential portrayals, it can be easy to forget what Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” is at its core: a distinguished piece of allegorical art. It stands in a long tradition of historical dramatization that extends from ancient Greek theater to Shakespeare’s historical plays, from Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” to Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” forging a narrative out of historical events that can inform our thinking on contemporary controversies. As an allegory, the film carries important lessons for people in contemporary political movements -- especially progressive ones -- that should not be lost in the conversation about the film’s reception.
1. Movements are not made by leaders.
Civil rights activist Ella Baker famously said that “the movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement,” and “Selma” is one of the first films to really illustrate this reality. No doubt, Martin Luther King Jr. is central in the film, and David Oyelowo does an extraordinary job portraying him, but it is also emphatically clear that King was not working alone: the scenes of internal quarreling among movement leaders and hundreds of people marching through the street make it apparent that King himself was but one thread in a much larger tapestry. Indeed, the most famous actor in the film, Oprah Winfrey, is not cast as a leader but rather as an average citizen -- albeit one who lived on as a civil rights icon for taking a well-deserved swing at Sheriff James G. Clark.
2. Leaders are essential.
Leaders do not make movements, but successful movements require leaders. As we see time and again throughout “Selma,” movements must have someone who is entrusted with the authority to make final decisions on strategy, to know when to advance and when to retreat, to soothe the activists in times of sorrow and to speak clearly to the outside world at critical moments. It is a stark contrast to movements such as Occupy Wall Street, which collapsed in large part because it refused to elevate leaders.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement has rejected older leaders such as the Rev. Al Sharpton but not yet publicly elevated young activists to take his place, opting instead for a looser coalition of voices where no one has final say. The Black Lives Matter movement has made extraordinary strides in a short period of time, but as it grows and moves into its next phase, it may find that it needs to do what the Southern Christian Leadership Conference did in the late 1950s and elevate a few leaders from within. “Selma” shows that bottom-up grassroots work and top-down strategic leadership are not inherently in opposition -- and that when deployed wisely, they are indeed profoundly complementary.
3. In matters of race, white allies are crucial -- but they must let people of color lead.
In recent months, in the wake of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York, some whites have been so eager to distinguish themselves from reactionaries and silent moderates that they have usurped leadership roles at major demonstrations. “Selma” offers a blueprint for a more constructive role for white allies: to turn to black leaders, follow their lead and respect their judgment. The irony of the film's characterization of Lyndon Johnson waffling or even being an obstacle on civil rights is that in real life, Johnson in many ways followed this protocol for being an ally, putting aside his worries about timing at King’s behest and then strategizing with King behind the scenes about the best way to support the activists’ efforts.
4. Strategy matters.
Winfrey has outraged some activists when she seemingly suggested that the Black Lives Matter movement hasn’t enunciated clear goals. It has. But the fact that an ally such as Winfrey -- who helped get “Selma” made in the first place -- was confused about the movement’s strategy and stated goals suggests that there is much more communication to be done, and perhaps done more clearly. Through its long, riveting debates about strategy, “Selma” offers a blueprint: choosing specific targets for protest, mobilizing people for specific action with well-chosen symbolism. Of course, the strategy and symbolism will not be exactly the same as it was in 1965; these are different times. But the strategy scenes in “Selma” are an excellent guide.
5. Religion can be a positive force.
It is popular in parts of the left today to decry religion, and I totally get it. Religion has caused enormous hardships all over the world. But “Selma” reminds us that religion can also powerfully bring people together toward a common good. The whites who came to Selma -- as we see in the film -- were mostly clergy. King himself was practicing a radical kind of love that was first preached by a Jew named Jesus Christ. And religion was also a comfort to people who started with little and risked everything, sometimes with devastating and painful results.
6. It’s OK to be a little “radical.”
When he died, King was planning a so-called Poor People’s Campaign that would see thousands of poor people descend on Washington. In accordance with King’s strategy, these demonstrators created a temporary town on the National Mall -- the aptly named “Resurrection City” -- and stayed there for a month, demanding that the government create and implement an economic bill of rights. It was the original “Occupy Wall Street.”
It would be an enormous tragedy if the young Black Lives Matter movement, which is off to such a promising start, ended up going the way of “Occupy.” “Selma” is a model for how to avoid that fate.
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