Welcome to the first entry in my new ongoing series, Films for the Trump Years, where, for as long as is needed, I will regularly examine one or a set of films that are in some manner important or relevant to the social, political, and cultural struggles humanity now faces, both in the US in opposing the Trump administration, and across the world in general.
I’ve decided to begin as simply and as obviously as I can; with Avu DuVernay’s masterful (and shamefully under-recognized) Selma, one of the best dramatizations of the Civil Rights Movement and the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ever made, and one of my top movies of2014.
In ways almost too numerous to count, the African-American Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s is the most immediate, pressing, and obvious historical example for the type of problems we are facing and what sort of civic engagement is needed now. It’s the piece of our history most directly connected to current crises in our politics and society- the efforts of groups like the SCLC and SNCC led to, among other things, the Voting Rights Act. The same Voting Rights Act that, after decades of campaigning by conservative lawyers, finally received a body blow to its integrity in the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, which severely scaled back the law’s capacity to support suits against discriminatory voting laws. And, surprise surprise, in the years since this decision, the foundational right to vote has once again come under sustained, nationwide assault, culminating in the President himself asserting (falsely) that “millions of illegal votes” were cast in the 2016 election, which will invariably be used to justify further restrictive measures on this most basic of democratic rights.
The organizations behind the Civil Rights Movement and the tactics they refined through wave after wave of painful (and often deadly) trial-and-error also became a format that directly inspired later organized pushes for LGBTQ rights, gender equality, and many others; in fact, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, another major achievement of this era, included a (at the time) largely unnoticed addendum banning discrimination on not just race, but sex as well, which became one of the legal foundations for the expanding fights for women’s rights just a few years later.
It’s also the forbear of Black Lives Matter, the foundation of which has been the need to highlight how so many of the exact same racial questions and issues raised by MLK and his contemporaries over half a century ago remain, in ways large and small, overwhelmingly unresolved, white protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.
Perhaps the saddest part of how viscerally relevant this era remains is that it, too, is an example of a time when the branches, power, and mechanisms of the federal government were in the control of peoples and parties more than willing to use them for anti-democratic ends. The FBI relentlessly targeted African-American activists for illegal surveillance and blackmail, deliberately seeking to undermine or stop people like MLK from gaining the ear of the President and Congress. Yet despite this, these fighters created enough sustained civic action that, in the face of all this inertia in the opposite direction, the government was eventually forced to respond appropriately, and this too can be an example and inspiration to us today.
Even though we are now faced with the blatant racism of Trump and many of his worst enablers, like Representative Steve King of Iowa and Attorney General Jeff “It’sPainful To Be Called Racist” Sessions (who, by the way, has already indicated he will pull back on federal efforts to fight civil rights violations in court), this is not so wholly different from what the Civil Rights movement faced, and today we have many more tools at our disposable to push back against their efforts than existed back then.
So where does Selma come in to all this? Aside from being a great movie in its own right, superbly directed and brimming with amazing performances (especially David Oyelowo’s MLK), it is packed with moments, scenes, and snippets of dialogue that perfectly capture or represent the history its depicting and highlight why this story is still relevant today.
The scene featuring the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson is a prime example of how unjustified police killings of blacks have never not been a constant hazard of simply being black in America; what we are suddenly capturing and witnessing on camera in the past few years may seem “new” or “shocking” to whites, but African-Americans have known for centuries how cheaply and easily their lives can be sacrificed for trivial (or non-existent) reasons.
Government surveillance and blackmail efforts are highlighted in a scene where Coretta reveals to Martin that she’s received recordings of him having sex with other women, accompanied by death threats. This reminds us that, like BLM activists today, MLK and his colleagues were seen as a threat to “how things are,” a bunch of agitators and thugs bent on creating a false narrative of nonexistent grievance. And just like back then, such accusations today are wholesale lies meant to avoid the hard questions racial activism seeks to raise.
At the same time, this moment also provides us with a reminder that MLK, like all of the historical figures our culture likes to worship as something higher than human, was in fact a man like us, with his own weaknesses, flaws, biases, and shortcomings. Much of the cultural rhetoric around Obama, or Bernie Sanders, or even Trump shows how dearly so many of us still want a political savior, someone just perfect with just the right ideas who, once in power, will magically fix all we see as wrong in the world. This is a fatal fallacy. We can’t expect sainthood to fix things- only we can do that, while bringing all our failings in tow, no matter contradictory or painful they may be.
To do that, we need constant organizations and tireless engagement with the systems we live in, even when we are fighting against their worst aspects. It ultimately wasn’t his moments of soaring rhetoric that led to actual, legislative achievement- it was years of endless work holding drives, scheduling marches, and getting people’s names on lists. This strategic aspect, as opposed to relying on high-minded ideals to inspire, lies at the core of Selma.
Above all else, though, one of the most important reasons to watch this movie and recall this part of our history is that it reminds us of just how much past generations have paid to earn the right to vote. Far beyond the petty frustrations of taking a day out of a busy schedule to cast a ballot, people have (and around the world today, continue) to give everything, up to and including their lives, to win this most basic of freedoms.
And when we bear this in mind, how dare we not cherish and utilize that right to vote wherever and whenever possible? Whether or not we find the particular candidates “principled” or “exciting” or “entertaining” enough, whether or not we like every single item on a party’s platform, whether or not we find a ballot initiative sexy or cool, how can we justify staying at home and disengaging when others have shed their blood just to be able TO engage with our government?
There are many books/movies/documentaries that powerfully capture this part of our history and highlight what it can teach us today (if you have the time, I particularly recommend Taylor Branch’s seminal trilogy America in the King years). Selma is only the first of these I am featuring here, and it almost certainly won’t be the last, but it’s as good a starting point as any.
The Resistance continues.