‘Selma’ highlights Dr. King’s forgotten supporting cast

Selma, the movie, takes the viewer back to a time and place when ordinary people and regular life was transformed. But it is a story for our present.

Selma, the movie, takes the viewer back to a time and place when ordinary people and regular life was transformed. But it is a story for our present.

Stories are important. We use them to guide us, like roadmaps. However, film based stories of the civil rights movement haven’t always been so useful. They too often become overly-sentimental forms of naïve hero worship, lacking fidelity to the intellect, courage, community and resilience of the people in the movement. Selma is different.

It is different because it captures the spirit and sensibility of the deep South and its foot soldiers for liberation. It is a collective story. Martin Luther King Jr. is not alone here. He works with those around him. They challenge him, lift him up, and surround him with song, laughter and grace.

We need to see the freedom movement in this more honest way, especially now. We need to have a deeper and less romantic sense of how struggle works because we are in the midst of a renewed freedom movement, and the stakes continue to be high when it comes to racial inequality, notwithstanding the gains we have made.

How the story is told matters immensely.

The Selma march is one of the more popular stories of the freedom movement. In many high schools across the country, students learn that it was the primary precipitant to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which radically transformed American politics. Finally, in 1965, the promise of the 15th amendment would be actualized for the majority of Black Southerners. By 1970, a majority of eligible Black voters in the South were registered to vote, and American politics were dramatically realigned.

As feature films do, Selma has an arc and an apex. The film culminates in the final successful march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Before that, we witness the stony road they have taken, which includes confrontations with the violence of Jim Crow and negotiations within the movement and between organizers and the White House. However, while Duvernay adheres to the conventions of film that require that she tell a linear story with a beginning middle, plot twist and end, this film urges the viewer to reach out beyond its frames, inviting us to use it as an entry point rather than a conclusion. We are led to the stories plural of the movement, through the characters who walk alongside King.

There is Hosea Williams, who began as an NAACP activist before joining SCLC and after Selma went on to organize on behalf of Black workers in Georgia and to found one of the nations largest social service agencies. There are Andrew Young and John Lewis, who went on to become mayor of Atlanta and Congressman in Georgia respectively. There is Diane Nash, a SNCC activist who in the aftermath of the 16th street church bombing was a key advocate for the more radical direct action that developed in Selma. There is Bayard Rustin, the architect of the March on Washington who despite his leadership was marginalized because he was openly gay. There is James Farmer, a key SNCC organizer who developed a more radical Black nationalist politics and went on to become a Black studies scholar. There are many more important figures who appear in the film as part of the complex fabric of Black political life, thought and struggle.

With a carefully crafted storyline, viewers are made to remember CORE’s freedom rides, Birmingham’s Children’s Crusade, the Nation of Islam and the Albany Movement as precursors to Selma.

This history reaches backwards but also moves us forward. Jason Moran’s score propels and pulls, with blue notes, funk and rhythm. The acting is subtly genius, capturing both the tempo and emotion of the period.

This Selma story is the history of a victory. But it is a history mired in grief. And Duvernay won’t let us forget it. We are present with the heartbreak and loss that brought us to the vote and the people who made it come to pass, like Jimmie Lee Jackson who was murdered by the police for merely exercising his right to protest. The film bears witness to ordinary people who transformed the society. It resonates from the theater screens to our streets. As the godmother of SNCC, Ella Baker said, “The struggle is eternal, the tribe increases. Somebody else carries.”

Dr. Imani Perry is a professor at Princeton’s Center for African American Studies. She is a scholar of law, culture and race as well as a writer and cultural critic. Follow her on Twitter @imaniperry.

‘Selma’ highlights Dr. King’s forgotten supporting cast

Say something about this work.


More Like This Work


Upcoming Events