If you are anything like me, sometimes you have to be in a particular mood to see a particular type of movie. In the ghostwriting I do for clients, I find myself researching history and wading through a lot of social, racial, historical, geopolitical and current events trying to get a handle on the best way to relate the material I’m working on to readers’ lives. As such, it’s sometimes difficult, when I’m not working, to spend time doing things that are related to the issues I work on. That was the case with Selma. Frankly, I just wasn’t in the mood for watching a movie about Black folk being terrorized by racist, ignorant white people 50 years ago. But since a friend of ours, Paul Garnes, produced it, there was no way I couldn’t go see it. Besides, my wife and daughter practically walked out the house without me when I hemmed and hawed.
I ended up attending with my wife, daughter and godson. Both the kids (young adults) are 19. I sat riveted by the portrayal of the struggle for voting rights in the 1960s south. I was familiar with the work of King, but I was pleasantly surprised that the film focused on those around King as well—particularly the women whom rarely, if ever, get referenced as part of the movement. The film was well made, well written, and well-acted—I don’t have to go into that because it was nominated for a Golden Globe and Oscar so, of course, it’s good. I was however surprised to find it was also produced by my old, one-time supporter, Jeremy Kleiner, of Brad Pitt’s Plan B, who also produced last year’s Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave.
So the film is over and here’s where it gets interesting. I asked the kids what they thought. My daughter thought it was excellent. My godson, like me, wasn’t in the mood to see it prior and I was curious if he enjoyed it. He said that he knew the story, but thought the film was good. That was an interesting response. Over pizza afterwards, I asked if they were aware that the issues being fought for in the film are coming back up today in the form of voter ID laws in the same southern states that King fought over in the film?
Neither of them knew that.
I told them how, in these states, voters are now required to show a government issued ID to vote and that the ID can be hard to get for some people. They had no idea. I told them that these states allow a gun permit to serve as valid ID, but not a college ID. Since they were both in college, they were very surprised to hear that. I mentioned that people who held gun permits in these states tended to be older and vote conservative, whereas younger people in college tended to vote liberal and that it was a very crafty way to disenfranchise voters in the 21st century.
I had their full attention now.
I asked them if they were aware of how delicate the rights granted in the Voting Rights Act actually are—that there are both general and specific provisions in the bill and that many of them expire at different times and need to be renewed in order to continue to be effective.
They didn’t know that.
I asked them if they knew that one of these special provisions required that certain counties, where discrimination had been the most rampant, had to get federal approval before they made any changes to their voting laws because the federal government didn’t trust them not to discriminate. They didn’t know that either. Then I asked them if they knew that our current conservative Supreme Court, just a little over a year ago, in a case bought by the current attorney general, Eric Holder, struck down that special provision that required those certain counties to get permission before changing their laws. And that immediately afterwards, counties all over the South and some in the north, passed these new voter ID laws that keep particular people from voting.
They were pretty surprised by that as well.
So what struck me with the film is that it is a film about the past, but that past is repeating right now in our present. Bright young people may know the historical events of Bloody Sunday—although this film will give them details they never imagined—but do they know the events of last Sunday and how eerily similar they are?
People are protesting all over the country over the Ferguson police killing of Michael Brown and the insensitive response of the Ferguson Police and City Hall in the wake of the killing. Ferguson is a city with a 67% Black population and 93% white police force and 86% white city hall. And Ferguson is not alone. In the film, the post-script says that after the black citizens of Selma gained the right to vote, the racist Sheriff who had led the attacks on them on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during bloody Sunday was voted out of office. Today, voter apathy is what allows situations like Ferguson and the hundreds of other cities like it to continue to be staffed with police and council members who do not represent, look like or even live in the communities they serve.
The thought that people could go through so much just to have the right to vote and now ignore that right—even to the point of allowing these voter ID laws to pass in the first place is remarkable. I make sure everyone in my family votes and that we spend the day before reviewing the issues and candidates. It can sometimes feel inconvenient—they certainly don’t make it easy, which could be done by making election day a holiday as some countries do—but I figure it’s worth it if for no other reason than those four little girls, and many others, who paid a tremendous price for this right. Oprah Winfrey said a friend of hers told her, after seeing the film, she would never skip voting again.
In the case of Ferguson, apathy only leads to repeating the past. Selma is one of those films that is remarkably current for a period piece. Given current events in our country today, it is a very important film. You may want to see it even if you have to drag yourself past apathy to do it.