In Berlin, I finally got the chance to see Selma. Sitting in the theatre, I went into oblivion before a torrent of advertisements and teasers – no popcorn, no beer (in Holland and Germany beers are allowed to go with your popcorn in Cinemas – a good enough reason not to go the cinema in France or Nigeria where it’s all soft drink). Eventually the movie kicked off. Like many movies of this kind which before getting to see them have been inundated with hypes and buzz, especially with its controversial outing at the Oscars, I usually come in with a certain level of apprehension coated with cynicism. Nevertheless, I brazed myself for the two-hour journey through this reenactment of a history we’ve come to know as pivotal in the repositioning of Black American narrative with regards to legislative rights.
In the first few minutes, I found myself paying too much attention to the artifacts that are often the consequences of attempts to set a movie within a certain era, be it in the past or the future: the almost-forced accent and dress codes of the 60’s Alabama and Washington; the paradox of having Oprah Winfrey play a poor disenfranchised Annie Lee Cooper; and so on. However, all of that receded into the cracks of the plot as it unfolds into a story – a story of resistance, of resilience, of courage forged by the unbearableness of man’s wickedness against man. But this story was told not so much by emphasizing on the atrocities as highlighting the power of collaboration and the necessity to raise every cause to the sublimity of humanness.
There is a certain kind of subtlety which runs through the frame of abject violence that foregrounds the movie – as if there is an attempt to remind us that beyond all of those disturbing scenes a much more potent force is at play. I recall the scene where Andrew Young’s character tried to quell the anger of a young protester. There is a force of conviction in every gap between his words, but more remarkably, he says something to the effect of “you cannot win like this, we must find another way to win”. By this he is referring to the young man fuming with anger and wanting to resort to violence. This particular scene left a long pause in me. It was as if he was speaking to me; to every person made to feel powerless by the virtue of prefabricated perception of who and what one is; to every person burdened with a history that always places him or her in a situation where the right to be fully human is automatically denied; to every person who feels angry because of his or her inability but also the fear that she or he will never be able to do anything about it; to every person who knows that something is deeply wrong yet cannot get her or himself to fold hands, walk in line, eat and sleep like everything is alright – we must find another way to win.
In the course of the movie, we would encounter these words again in the disposition of Matin Luther King Jr. who – after the first attempt to match across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama to Montgomery resulted in the Bloody Sunday – called out to the conscience of all Americans and the world. What followed was a mass reinforcement of the cause by blacks, white clergies and sympathizers from all corners of America. He appealed to the humanness of the people: that which is safely tucked under the skin, which we usually preserve, protect and sometimes demonize and subdue the other for – out of fear of being dispossessed of it. That humanness has no colour because it is invisible to the eyes but omnipotent when put to action.
He looked straight into the young man’s eyes and said: “you cannot win like this, we must find another way to win”
This movie did not win the accolades it deserved in the way of trophies. I understand why this was so: It is too good to be true. I see how it can be conceived as manipulating the conscience especially in a world where it’s all brains and no heart. It is easy to want to resist all that rush of crude emotions which runs through the veins and out of the eyes as hot tears. And perhaps we should not take lightly the effects of a painful truth which recasted the motive behind Lyndon B. Johnson’s passing of the voting rights act.
But for me nothing is lost, on the contrary the Oscars would have placed the movie in the ranks of all these empty overrated shells that are nothing but an emblem of America’s capitalistic tendencies and Hollywood’s decadence. The makers of Selma was disappointed that they didn’t win trophies but I say to them “you cannot win like this, we must find another way to win”.