Commentary: Why You Should Go See Selma Today

Commentary: Why You Should Go See Selma Today

Ava DuVernay's film is a timely representation of the state of civil rights in America.

Published January 9, 2015

By now, you've probably heard about the movie Selma, which opens in theaters across the country today. And you may have even read about the controversy surrounding the film. But today I want to encourage you just to see the film.

Selma tells the story of a 1965 voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama, where African-Americans were systematically deprived of the right to vote. The movie starts with Annie Lee Cooper, played brilliantly by Oprah Winfrey, being denied the right to vote because she could not name all 67 county judges in the state of Alabama. It ends with President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

For anyone who thinks the story lines in the movie no longer apply to American life five decades later, they need only turn on the news. Just two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act because, as Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, "our country has changed."

Has it? Last year, Republicans launched a new wave of voting restrictions to suppress minority voter turnout and boost their chances in the 2014 midterm elections.

The film also shows scenes of sign-waving protesters taking over the streets in defiance of police orders, much like the scenes we've watched from Ferguson to New York City in the past six months.

And the film depicts vivid scenes of police brutality, an important 50-year-old history lesson after last year, when police killed Michael Brown, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson and numerous other unarmed Black men and women.

Fifty years ago, police in riot gear attacked civil rights protesters with billy clubs. Last year, police in riot gear attacked protesters with tear gas. The technology may have advanced but the harsh tactics remain the same.

Still, the big controversy about Selma stems from its depiction of President Johnson, with some arguing the president was more of a partner than an adversary with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Selma campaign and the civil rights movement. The most notable critic, former Johnson aide Joseph Califano, even made the preposterous and insulting claim that "Selma was LBJ's idea."

Nonsense. By 1965, Dr. King and his top lieutenant Bayard Rustin had been leading civil rights protests for a decade. King and Rustin were spearheading the year-long 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott when Johnson was still referring to civil rights legislation as "n----r bills." King definitely needed Johnson to act on legislation, but he certainly didn't need LBJ to give him advice on how to run a movement.

Yes, King and Johnson were partners at times, but Johnson also needed King's movement to dramatize the depth of the civil rights problem and prod Washington to act. I was born in 1965 and I've worked with and known politicians from Mike Dukakis to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama. I respect them for what they do, but, let's be honest, politicians are inherently risk-averse creatures. Even when they believe in a cause, they rarely stick their necks out on the line until it's safe to do so.

Lyndon Johnson was a well-known racist who frequently used the N-word and opposed every civil rights bill in his first two decades in Congress. Despite his flaws, Johnson evolved to support, champion and sign two of the most important civil rights laws since Reconstruction, and the film Selma fairly and sympathetically depicts him as the reluctant hero he was.

Meanwhile, while so much energy has been exhausted on rehabilitating the reputation of LBJ, the public dialogue has virtually ignored how Johnson and King are both portrayed as flawed heroes in the film. In Selma, King makes questionable decisions about tactics that frustrate younger activists, much like today's conflict between Rev. Al Sharpton and the young leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement. Most surprisingly and refreshingly, in a movie that exalts the legacy of the civil rights movement, filmmaker Ava DuVernay also candidly depicts King's alleged infidelity to his wife Coretta.

That's what I appreciate most about Selma. Black people don't need another Dr. King to lead us to the promised land. Nor can we rely on a well-intentioned African-American president to be our savior. We need thousands of ordinary citizens, all of us in some ways flawed, working together to make the world a better place.

The most important lesson of Selma is that flawed people, even great leaders like LBJ and MLK, and ordinary people like Annie Lee Cooper can work together to create change. 

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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Written by Keith Boykin

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