The Words Behind Selma
I went to see the movie “Selma” tonight, and I loved it. The movie is a powerful portrayal of events so recent that they were never included in my history schoolbooks but so distant that I can scarcely believe they happened in my country in my lifetime.
The movie, which was directed by Ava DuVernay, has its flaws. There are scenes that feel forced; there are threads that are left hanging. It’s been criticized for historical inaccuracies, particularly the portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
But I was captivated by how David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Martin Luther King revealed him as a real man, a vulnerable man. For most of my life, King has been a mythical hero delivered in grainy video clips of brave marches and electrifying speeches.
Of course, as a white child growing up in the South in the 60s, I heard plenty of ugly vitriol directed his way too. But even hateful rants served to build up Martin Luther King Jr. as someone larger than life. It’s hard to imagine that a man who affected our culture and our country so powerfully was ever afraid or tired or uncertain of his next moves.
“Selma,” through the script by Paul Webb and DuVernay, helps us see that man—the one who wasn’t captured by cameras for evening news footage. In this film, we see the man who takes out the trash and argues over strategy and fears for his life and the lives of his children.
We also see King working. Some of my favorite scenes are the ones where King is writing, laboring over his notebooks as he prepares for an important speech. Scratching out words, trying out phrases.
We’ve heard King’s familiar speeches so often that we can forget that those words weren’t plucked out of thin air—they were written. Purposefully, carefully, King took words and strung them into phrases, then threaded them into sentences, then gathered them into paragraphs that could be delivered aloud with power and grace. Long before he stepped in front of a crowd, King sat with his notebooks—writing, crossing out, rewriting.
Speeches like the ones Dr. King gave do not come easily. They just sound like they do. “Selma” offers the images that remind us of the man—and the work—behind the words.
And “Selma” also reminds its viewers that King did not rely on his own strength or his own wisdom. A Baptist minister who was named after the man who changed Christian history, King turned to prayer, Bible passages, and gospel songs to fortify himself and his followers. His speeches were laced with the words of the Bible; his philosophy was built on the teachings of Jesus.
Words from the Word that changed history, the nation, the world.