Feeling inspired, humbled, reminded, motivated…went to see Selma last night with a group of people at the Alamo Draft House. We made this an informal get-together for members of our student group, and it was secretly my treat to myself after a long day of training. I’ve been wanting to see this one for a while and have gotten very interested in the behind-the-scenes story of what it took to get it made. So first off I have to say, excellent job to cast and crew, you are all heroes. Clearly David Oyelowo is superb (he WAS King) but all the performances are top notch. You always know everything is working in a film when you’re not thinking about the film itself at all, but rather getting swiftly carried along by the current of the story and not ever wanting to look away. You must know what comes next. You want to feel everything it throws at you. And when it ends, you have to sit in that theater for a moment because you aren’t entirely certain where you are, because a moment ago you were sure you were living in that land, that story.
I wasn’t alive when the events depicted in Selma took place. I came along 5 years after MLK was murdered. So I didn’t watch it to recall my experience, as was the case with some who attended with me (and their transport was a different, yet similarly significant, journey) – I watched to witness the story that was to be told, a story I had heard pieces about or read about but didn’t really know, at least not in the ways you know something when you lived through it.
And Witness it we did…I couldn’t believe how much it felt like we were in that screen, caught up in those events. Bravo Ms DuVernay, brilliant job. I don’t know how she created that illusion like you were sitting in the audience as King gave a sermon, or that you were on the bridge when the tear gas was shot in the crowd…but it felt like you were sitting in the middle of it all, and I felt such a range of emotions from anger to surprise to joy to grief. But what I wasn’t expecting was how it also transported me simultaneously to the present day – to the stories of Michael Brown, Eric Garner…the attempts occurring now to restrict the vote, the attitudes displayed now towards people trying to make a change. I felt it all because it was like a mirror of what is right now, and the words being spoken in those speeches were the same words we’re trying to get out there to people everywhere today. It is still relevant, it is still happening.
During our post-film discussion, someone mentioned how a few people have criticized the portrayal of LBJ. In truth I don’t know how “accurate” some of that is, but it is very clear the film is not meant to be a documentary. It uses its medium very well to convey a story, a very poignant story that also includes people who really existed and who really did some of the things shown on that screen. What I thought was interesting though is that while I don’t have any historical record of what two very powerful White men in the 60’s actually said about Dr. King and the events in Selma, I do not doubt that the style of conversation portrayed was on target. Why? Because the words used were genuine, and because people still sit around today referring to people of color through racial slurs, “good ol’ boy” assumptions, and power expectations. Again, the film wasn’t just a reflection of 1965, but a window into today.
It’s ironic that I spent the morning offering a diversity training to a local organization. They wanted to see Parrhesia, and also learn about community engagement. My co-director and I jumped at the chance to do this since it’s all pointing in directions we want to be heading towards. We’ve been preparing for a while now and we were going to have the floor for the majority of the day.
Overall it was a very good experience. While everyone was similar in that they worked for the common goals of the organization, there was a great deal of difference regarding job titles, functions, experiences, and so on. So it had some of the “general audience” effect when watching the film. We had an anonymous feedback form this time and responses were highly favorable (3-4 stars!!) with the only complaints being to include people who come from experiences not focused on in this film (this is a criticism I have no problem with at all – sequel, anyone??). Many also freely offered that they really liked the film and we had a very exciting conversation afterwards, followed by our training material. I’ll admit we were quite nervous, because the training part was newer for us. The work itself wasn’t new, but trying to show it in a way to a group of professionals was the new part. It was like teaching my diversity class, a typically 15 week course, in about 2 hours. But everyone seemed up to the task.
I’m not going to go into details about the conversations had, but some really good stuff came out of it. I found myself going through my usual inner monologue of “trust the process” when the fear would creep up on me…and sure enough we would press through the awkward moments and get to some very useful, productive places. I know they were left with much to think about. John and I had to work together in a way which was new, but even with the bumps we figured it out pretty well, I think. The topic was a little bit more my territory than his, which is different, so there was the experience of figuring out in the moment what we each lend to facilitating the overall experience. Interesting and useful, and I think we both learned some things.
-an aside – I still hate powerpoint.
Anyway, I’ll say it does feel a little weird to go from that to Selma in the evening…not weird in a bad way but it means my head and subsequently my heart was filled to the brim with social justice. Getting into the spaces to teach social justice also makes me face my own inner workings and experience related to it – it does become a lot to manage but it is part of doing the work, in my opinion. I have to keep an eye on me while I’m keeping an eye on them. So I also notice all my vulnerabilities, mistakes, successes, turning points…and brought all that into the theater with me. (Oh yeah, did I also mention I showed my film to a group of people and it still scares the crap out of me?)
After all that I think that’s where we get to the humbling and motivating part…what I thought was masterful about Oyelowo’s performance was how he brought the human to the image of King. You saw and felt the fear, uncertainty, pain, and even humiliation while he was engaging in these remarkably brave and terrifying acts. Now I will not in any way attempt to say that I work like MLK, because I don’t. But I could connect with that experience, the moment of pulling together all your strength to do something courageous because it must be done, all the while feeling scared, doubtful, and alone. Because that’s the truth of it, courage and fear exist simultaneously, and we can’t ever pretend they don’t live together. To ignore one will destroy the potential of the other.
I also noticed….that while MLK was certainly the point of the spear, he was not the only person pushing the machine (mixed metaphor, whatever). There were many, all putting themselves out there. We can’t forget that. I think oppression tries to convince us that we are alone, but the truth is we are not. So if they can do it, so can I….