Selma: A Fresh Take on Civil Rights Education

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Eli MacDonald
Staff Writer

A handful of USF students gathered at the Intercultural Center on Thursday to discuss Selma, a historical drama depicting the 1965 marches for voting rights in Alabama. Due the movie’s focus on themes of activism and equality, the Intercultural Center held the event to open a broader dialogue about equality in the media. As each person around the circle introduced themselves, the majority reported having a strong emotional response after watching the film. Femi Da-Silva, a junior at USF, explained, “My grandma was at Selma, and she had this long scar all down her back from where they beat her. When I saw this movie I couldn’t help but bawl.”

Organized by senior Alejandra Mojica and other members of the Intercultural Center, the event encouraged students to share their impressions of Selma and engage in a discussion about the media’s depiction of African-Americans. Although there was only a small selection of students in attendance, each displayed an appreciation for the relevance of the film’s central theme: activism.

After a viewing of the trailer, students went around the circle sharing their impressions. Overwhelmingly, the comments focused on the portrayal of King, not as a figurehead, but as a down-to-earth leader. King’s humanity is also showcased through allusions to his infidelity. Although it is never explicitly stated, viewers can see the tension between King and his wife, Coretta Scott King.

In the year of #BlackLivesMatter, Selma enjoyed an accepting audience, nominated for two Oscars among other awards. Many critics agree that there is something unique about Selma. King is depicted as powerful, yet approachable, a more human representation than many are used to in the context of the Civil Rights Movement. David Denby of The New Yorker states in a critique of the film, “In his fancy duds, he’s self-mocking, but proud. A crusader at rest.”

Throughout the film, King’s activism and oratory prowess rest upon a foundation of common human experience. Da-Silva explained that, “I think we like to see Dr. King as this almighty, inhuman face of the Civil Rights Movement — what I’m interested in is the fact that they do show his flaws. It makes him more tangible.” Another student agreed, commenting, “I really respect how they portrayed King. He was disconnected from his family and his wife, definitely not a perfect person, but maybe thats why it came out in this day and age; it’s meant to empower people now.”

Many students, following the viewing of the trailer, were struck by the use of hip-hop music, remarking on the revolutionary atmosphere it conveyed. Actor Tim Roth, who played the Alabama governor George Wallace, had a line in the trailer, “It looks like an army out there.”

The Black Power Movement, which truly came into prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is the branch of the Civil Rights Movement more commonly associated with militant revolutionary rhetoric. Although the Selma marches were firmly anchored in the ideology of non-violent resistance, the film capitalizes on its most dramatic elements. This drama was enhanced by the director’s choice to cast prominent social figures like Oprah Winfrey and musician John Legend.

Angelica Miramontes, a senior intern in the Intercultural Center, felt like the casting of well-known celebrities added to the audience’s investment in the film’s message: “My sister is 16 and has a conception of the Civil Rights Movement as ‘way back in the past’. Seeing people like Oprah on screen, who she grew up watching, really brought it into the present for her.”

Students were also struck by the film’s attention to detail. Angelica continued, “in school we all learned about the Civil Rights Movement but all we learned about was Dr. King and his “I Have a Dream” speech. In the movie we learned more about the movement’s complications and strategies.”

Mojica elaborated on this point: “We learn about the history of the movement, but we learn this very vague perspective of what happened, and with a very similar narrative each time it’s discussed. For me this wasn’t a movie about the Civil Rights movement but a movie about a fight within a larger movement, and that’s the story we never get to hear. We don’t learn about it in a strategic sense and therefore we do not learn how to follow that model. This has a big impact on people who are working for positive social change because we constantly have to re-invent the wheel.”

Regardless of how Selma is meant to be perceived, it was evident throughout the discussion that its message was highly relatable to people interested in activism and community improvement today.

Photo Credit: Savannah Aubinoe/Foghorn

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