Recalling MLK through the film Selma. The road to freedom
The 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, which took place on April 4, 1968, took place a few days ago. I thought it would be thought-provoking to remember him here by reviewing a film which I saw a couple of years ago which I enjoyed: it is not a traditional bio-pic, from the beginning to the end of King’s life. Selma, by Ava DuVernay, in 2014, is centred on a specific page in this leader’s history.
The film deals with the problem of black rights in America, in particular the right to political participation, and the means to exercise or obtain the right to vote. In the film, the leader’s struggle clashes with an establishment that was initially violent and obstructive. This brings out another point: the construction of peace.
The narration in the film opens with three very significant scenes: first that of King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize (1964); then the attack on a religious community in Alabama, where four little girls die; finally the obstructionism towards the request of a black woman to be registered in the electoral list of the city of Selma. We understand that the whole film will revolve around these themes: peace, violence and rights.
King keeps to the strategy of non-violence throughout his story, always affirming, even in the various talks with the American president Johnson, who at the beginning seems to be too cautious and temporist, that his way of proceeding lies in negotiating, demonstrating and resisting.
On this backdrop other elements of his leadership emerge. About halfway through the film, King considers, with his collaborators, what issues to highlight so as to formulate a convincing and effective request to the President to help his people. The scene represents a sort of community discernment: it is not the leader who decides alone, but asks, listens, confronts himself, and then it is he who exposes himself, assuming firsthand the responsibility for the decision. On the other hand, from the progress of the interventions, we find a central point: the problem of the right to vote involves not only the obstacles to the exercise of the right, but the whole question of participation in social life and the way in which society is organised.
The first obstacle to seek the removal of is considered to be the fact that the name and address of a black man who obtains electoral registration are published in the newspapers: but in this way, those who would want to, could easily do him harm – the problem of violence. A second obstacle is seen in the electoral fee, because if it is already absurd that one must pay to be able to vote, the fact remains that blacks are poor – the problem of the equitable distribution of resources. The third obstacle concerns the assumption of the system: obtaining the electoral card required the intervention of an already registered voter willing to guarantee for a black person. But only a black was willing to guarantee for a black, and no black was registered. This is the premise, the real obstacle to be eliminated: the violation of the principle of solidarity. Thus emerges the need for a strategy and the idea emerges of a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery, two towns in Alabama.
In reality there will be three Selma marches: the first, without King, repressed in violence; the second, with King, during which the leader himself will stop and turn back; the third, again with King, which arrives at its destination, and the film ends with King’s speech at Montgomery. Between the second and the last march, important scenes are placed: a telephone dialogue between King and the president; a judicial process that authorizes the march (this, in addition to being a given of the story, is a typical cinematic expedient: cinema often uses the instrument of the process as a place, sometimes symbolic, in which the truth emerges); and then again a dialogue between the governor of Alabama, rigid in his obstructionism, and President Johnson; the dialogue which is finally followed by the President’s decision to present to Parliament a law that abolishes all the obstacles that effectively prevent blacks from exercising their right to vote, guaranteed by the Constitution.
In the President’s speech to Parliament, the principles to which this concrete political action is being inspired are emphasized: the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy; in fact, the cause of the equality of all black Americans is defined as an essential problem in all of America. On the other hand, the social action of the march recalls another great image: the crossing of the sea (Exodus 14), the crossing of the Jewish people from the slavery of Egypt to freedom. It is very significant that the heart of the march is in the passage of the Selma bridge (often, in the scenic languages, including literature, the passage of a bridge is a symbol of a change between a before and an after). Finally, in the words of King’s speech at Montgomery we catch the sentence: your truth is marching, Lord.
If peace, violence and rights were the themes around which the film would be built, now dignity, freedom and truth will close the narrative, leaving us with glasses with which to read our present and a way to remember the pastor M. L. King.