Educators and Scholars say ‘Selma’ Is Likely to Have a Social Justice Impact


In the days leading up to the Christmas Day limited release of the civil rights era film Selma, the filmmakers and lead actors saw fit to integrate messages from the Black Lives Matter protests and social media campaign into their promotion of the new movie last month.

That merger of film promotion and social protest proved particularly memorable Dec. 14, the day of the New York premiere when Selma cast members and director Ava DuVernay posed for photos while wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts during a protest marking Eric Garner’s chokehold death by a New York City police officer. The photos taken that day left no doubt about the conviction the actors and filmmaker have that the racial oppression portrayed in Selma will resonate strongly with American audiences.

“You watch those images [in the Selma film] and you understand how it feels to be someone in [1965] being shocked about what they saw on TV because it just happened to you in August [2014],” said DuVernay in a video describing how some Americans have reacted to television news coverage of the Ferguson, Missouri, protests that following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown.

As distribution of Selma expands nationally to many hundreds of movie theaters today, some scholars and critics contend the new film could very well provide the experience of connecting Americans to civil rights movement history with their present-day understanding of police brutality and suppression of voter participation through burdensome voter ID laws.

Such connections, some say, may help sharpen the sense of purpose and strategy that young Americans are developing as they participate in social protests sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement. Since last month, Selma has garnered rave reviews from critics and attained Golden Globe-award nominations for its portrayal of the Selma, Alabama-based nonviolent voting rights campaign that led to President Lyndon Johnson’s successful lobby of the 1965 Voting Rights Act legislation. It’s widely believed that Selma will receive Academy Award nominations, including ones for Best Picture and Best Director.

In the analysis “Why Selma Matters Today,” published on, journalist and social critic Jamelle Bouie writes that the film provides “an evocative look” at how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership led to passage of the Voting Rights Act. Bouie writes that the movie demonstrates that King’s achievement during the Selma campaign was “raising awareness and trying to create a specific outcome through particular pressure points.”

In contrast, the Black Lives Matter movement “reads as just an exercise in catharsis, a declaration of dignity and a plea for humanity,” according to Bouie.

“This isn’t a bad thing, but it isn’t a strategy. Not only could “Black Lives Matter” shift attitudes on criminal justice and force a needed conversation about police culture and police violence, it could create political space for changes to law and policy,” he writes.

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Source: Diverse Education | Ronald Roach

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