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How Well Does 'Selma' Teach Civil Rights?

How Well Does 'Selma' Teach Civil Rights? featured image

hero_Selma-2014-1Photo Credit: www.rogerebert.com/reviews/selma-2014

The emotions of the civil rights struggle are impossible to capture, but imagine this: A 54-year-old African American woman, Annie Lee Cooper, clubbed by a local sheriff as she waits outside a courthouse, registering to vote. Now imagine Ms. Cooper portrayed by Oprah Winfrey.

Oprah’s role in Selma is small, but hard to ignore. There’s nothing more jarring than violence and abuse directed towards the first-name-only talk show host whose friendly voice filled our living rooms for years. By playing a little-known female activist, Oprah draws attention to the everyday people who made an impact.

And that is what this film is about: the everyday people. Despite being labeled as a “Martin Luther King Jr. biopic,” Selma’s strength lays in its comprehensive portrayal of student-led groups, active community members, artistic contributors, white supporters and more.

To further this, the issue of King as a celebrity is addressed in a scene comparing grass roots work with the televised “drama” needed to arouse white consciousness. Today, many students only hear about these dramatized, public moments — hopefully this movie will help students see past them.

But what about the historical inaccuracies? One of the biggest critiques of the film is the portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson. While actor Tom Wilkinson depicts an unsympathetic president who attempts to thwart King’s efforts towards Voting Rights, Johnson’s supporters argue the men maintained a political partnership that was responsible for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Other historical inaccuracies involve timing. Scenes shown one after the other actually took place a year apart. A character dies at the scene of a shooting, when in reality he died a week later at a hospital. Much of this is done for dramatic effect.

These inaccuracies have caused proposed dismissals from awards shows and class field trips alike. But before deciding whether this film can be used as a teaching tool, take a step back and ask yourself a couple questions:

  • What is the message of the film?
  • Is this message something you’d want to teach your students?
  • Do the minor historical inaccuracies affect the message?

Though everyone’s responses to these questions will differ, director Ava Duvernay’s answer may serve as a good starting point: “For this to be reduced ... to one talking point ... is unfortunate,because this film is a celebration of people, a celebration of people who gathered to lift their voices — black, white, otherwise, all classes, nationalities, faiths — to do something amazing." (Source: Vulture)