Because I have taken an active interest in Civil Rights history over the years, a lot of people have asked me if I plan to see “Selma,” the new movie with Oprah Winfrey. My answer is simple: Probably not.
I’m not averse to the film being made or shown, but I’m not all that enthusiastic about it either. I’ve read the books, seen the documentaries, listened to speakers, worked on commemoration projects, and known people who took part. Receiving this telling isn’t urgent for me. I also didn’t heed the cattle-call audition to be an extra when the crew came to Montgomery last year. When people asked me why I was not interested in the filming, my answer again is simple: any roles that would have been available to a white Southern man, I wouldn’t have wanted them.
Historical films like this one are the Hollywood-conceived generally true version of the almost-real history. (Read the Washington Post‘s review from last month or The New Republic‘s piece on the film.) These movies are made with an understanding that they don’t tell the whole story, and frankly, most people who watch them don’t intend to take the time and learn the whole story. I feel the same way about “Long Walk Home,” the Montgomery bus boycott dramatization that I was in, as an extra.
Though films like “Selma” will have to do in its place, real history cannot be encapsulated into a two-hour drama with a handful of main characters. The Selma-to-Montgomery March evolved (out of the tragic killing of a black man by a law enforcement officer) over a period of more than a month – from Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death in late February until the arrival at the state capitol in late March – and it involved the extremely complex interrelations among SNCC, SCLC and others. Beyond that immediate story, the historical underpinnings that contributed to that build-up encompass the history of slavery, the failure of Reconstruction, the emergence of sheriffs as power-brokers, the evolution of the Ku Klux Klan, the labor shortages caused by the Great Migration, the economic calamities of the Depression, the rise of the television as a powerful media, and the Southern political landscape after ten years of Civil Rights protests prior to 1965. That won’t fit in two hours, or three, or ten . . .
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not bashing the film, mainly since I haven’t seen it, but also since I recognize that it will put the Selma-to-Montgomery March on the cultural radars of many people who wouldn’t pay attention otherwise. However, I do have one thing to add to the conversation about it.
Having worked with movement veterans on various projects, I know that they get tired of others capitalizing on their work without sharing the wealth. Movement veterans often see well-meaning commemoration efforts enrich the organizers, while leaving out the very people who lived the hardship you will see in “Selma.” I take a lot of pride in not being paid for my work on these projects. If the filmmakers really want to do something good, they will share a percentage of the movie’s profits with the still-impoverished people of Alabama’s Black Belt – Perry, Dallas, Lowndes and Montgomery counties are where the March events occurred – in the form of donations to public school systems, community corrections programs, economic development initiatives, jobs programs and infrastructure improvements. It’s all well and good to celebrate this immense milestone in American history, but don’t forget the foot soldiers (and their descendants) whose bravery gave all Americans a greater degree of freedom. They’re still there struggling.