On an early evening in April, 1968, the news media broke into programming to announce that Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated. “That’s a good thing, isn’t it?” the twelve-year-old me asked my mother, ironing behind me. She mumbled something about how people shouldn’t be killed and didn’t say anything more. I now understand how uncomfortable she was with how she had shared her own prejudices with me.
The movie, Selma, is powerful storytelling of those times and the images embedded in the film serve as a reminder of how much families like mine tragically missed that connection to those who suffered. In one of the most powerful scenes I’ve witnessed in any movie, four little African American girls descend the stairs just before church talking about what little girls often talk about. Seconds later an explosion that ends their life. The attack by police on marchers over the Edmund Pettus Bridge is portrayed in a haze of white and slow motion and surrealistic horror as marchers are brutally beaten. And toward the end an African American woman pauses from cleaning a food tray for an elderly white patient in a nursing home. She watches a black and white broadcast of President Lyndon Johnson describing the Voting Rights Act he’s about to send before the Congress.
There has been some controversy about the film that I consider minor quibbles, possibly unfair depictions of Lyndon Johnson whose domestic programs I admire but whose agenda was made possible by the organizing of the civil rights movement. I would have liked to have known more about the women who were the heart of the voting rights struggle in Selma. I’d suggest a film with these women at the center. None of these should keep anyone from seeing this powerful film.
The nursing home worker, played in a small role by Oprah Winfrey, reminded me of the nursing home where my mother ended up, a place where most of the patients were whites tended to by black healthcare workers. One of my mother’s last acts before her death in 2009—to vote for an African American president who told stories, stories that connected with her. When people say that no one can change so you shouldn’t try, I have to disagree.