The Saints Go Marching On—- ‘Selma’

I went to see Selma today and was once again moved to some tears, though not to the degree I was when I saw Lincoln. This is a powerful, well acted film, and full marks to David Oyelowo for a brilliant job of playing MLK Jr. Tom Wilkinson’s portrayal of Lyndon Johnson is excellent as well, though they get the history rather wrong in making him a reluctant supporter of King’s work. While I am pointing out faults, it is most unfortunate that the editors did all they could to remove the references to Christ and the Gospel from King’s sermons, which are still powerful but end up sounding just like political diatribes for the most part. They don’t reveal the real spiritual core of what motivated King and what resonated in his message in and outside the churches. King was in fact deeply indebted to E. Stanley Jone’s biographical portrayals of Gandhi and his message as well as to the Bible. Fortunately, it is at least clear in the film that he and Malcolm X fundamentally disagreed on things like non-violence, though perhaps Malcolm came around a bit when he met and talked with Coretta and spoke at King’s Church in Atlanta.

The real heart and virtue of this film is that: 1) it reveals the intimate network of King with his supporters and co-workers, and 2) it sheds some helpful light on his relationship with Coretta, and does not sugar coat (though it does not dwell on) his infidelities. King comes across in this film as a human with his flaws and faults, but also as an inspirational and courageous leader so you get a sense of the full arc of his personality and accomplishments.

Another virtue of the film is that it does not dwell on the virulent violent response to the marches in Selma and beyond, though it makes them very clear. The camera work and story line is an insider story line so that we look at things from within the circles of the Southern Christian leadership team and related organizations (e.g. the NAACP). Dr. King was shrewd and politically savvy, and he did not fail to make his points clearly to LBJ when the President needed to act. The film does not take us up to 1968 and the assassination but only up to his famous speech in front of the capitol building in Montgomery, with George Wallace seething inside (played very well by Mr. Roth). It is a fitting ending and in some ways parallels the ending of ‘Lincoln’ where we have Lincoln giving the State of the Union address as a flash back.

I have to tell you that I have vivid memories of these things growing up in N.C. near the lunch counter sit-in at Woolworth’s in Greensboro. I was only 13 in 1965 when the march on Selma transpired, but we all knew that change was in the air, if not immediately in the works. Desegregation was to come in 1968 when I went to high school. I have seen and experienced the ugly face of racism among white people a good deal in my life, and it has always made me sick especially when it is admixed with Christian platitudes, when the Gospel frankly in no way supports racism.

America, it has been said, is a melting pot. I prefer the metaphor of a salad bowl– with a bunch of elements side by side, in the same bowl (and in the same boat), but for the most part not blending all together but retaining some individuality while doing a better job in some cases of getting along.

This movie is very timely in light of the recent events in Ferguson Mo. and elsewhere which remind us we have miles and miles to go when it comes to the issue of racism in America. Dr. King would remind us that our besetting sins do not just go away through more education. If a change is going to come, it requires divine intervention and real grace in action, otherwise we just keep committing the oldest kinds of sins in the news kinds of ways, as Shakespeare once said.

I highly recommend this film. It is not as a great a film as it might have been, or as great a film on this matter as ‘Lincoln’. But what it is is a sad commentary on how long racism has bedeviled us. The March on Montgomery from Selma took place almost exactly 100 years after the end of the Civil War. Lincoln may have officially freed the slaves, but a 100 years later they were still far from equal citizens with equal rights in this country. And as Robert Frost would say, we still have ‘miles to go before we sleep’.

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