On this day honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I want to remind everyone to go see Selma.
This film by Ava DuVernay has generated much acclaim and has been nominated for an academy award for best picture. It’s a powerful film about people struggling, demanding to be treated with respect and to be given the full power of citizens of a liberal democracy, including not just the right, but more practically the ability to register and to vote.
While I am not a King scholar and my work (not focused primarily on context of the United States) often critically reflects on the taken-for-granted presuppositions of human rights discourse and liberalism, this film is a forceful reminder that injustice is very real and justice is worth fighting for.
Once of the aspects of the film that I found to be so important were the strategic decisions in the campaign. So often non-violence is seen as a benevolent choice, certainly people like me with privilege (and in the movie the president stands in defense of these interests) are calmed by the idea that we won’t be terrorized, targets of attacks of terror. But, Selma showed that rather than (or at least in addition to) a choice meant to soothe others, or even a foundational ideal, non-violence was strategic. Many thinkers remind us (who have the privilege of not being confronted with violence) that for many absence of violence is not a choice. For instance, Miguel de la Torre reminds us in Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins, “[W]hile those of the dominant culture continue to struggle with the issue of whether violence can be ethically employed, for the marginalized violence is a reality.” (109) He refers here to the fact that many live with violence or at least the real threat of violence. Massive protests in Ferguson, Missouri this past year spotlighted the reality of police violence that many people live with in the U.S.
Selma emphasized the strategic calculation of not responding with violence even when peaceful protests were met with police brutality. We can’t win that way, one of the organizers in the film explained to another who sought justice in kind.
The relevance of the film, the relevance of the struggle and the treatment those assembled faced was striking. So many cases of violence against unarmed black men have been world-wide news (e.g. Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Eric Garner in New York, Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida) For each of these, presumably there are many, many more that go unnoticed or unreported.
The film ends with an original song, Glory, by John Legend and Common. This song so powerfully asserts with its words and music, that the struggle is not over but continues a fight for glory.
Legend writes, “Justice for all just ain’t specific enough”
Perhaps this sentiment helps me deal with the distance between my current project and the important fight for justice gestured to in the film and song. An assertion ‘justice for all’ falls lightly and simply tend to soothe us as we continue to implicitly support the status quo. We need to get specific, asking important questions in each of our particular contexts. How do people thrive? What are the specific struggles? What is your place and what is my place in these?
I’ll leave you with a link to the tremendously moving song Glory. Listen now. Go see Selma and be sure to sit through the credits to listen to it in the theatre. And, perhaps later, listen again, to remind you of the power of the film and the power of the music and the power and importance of the ongoing struggle.