So, what did Selma mean to me? I was finally able to find a break in my schedule to take in this historic film. It was an awkward moment for me and my wife as we watched the movie in an almost empty theater. In fact, the only other people in the theater with us and our two-year-old son were an elderly white couple, old enough to remember exactly what the country was going through at the time of these events. Who knows how they felt. Were they repulsed? Were they people that supported segregation and the right to suppress the Black vote, but were now reformed? Were they simply there to see if the story was told accurately from a white perspective?
These profiling questions rolled around in my head just as profiling questions still roll around in people’s head when they see me, a Black man, dressed as I was at the movie: Black skull cap, Muhammad Ali t-shirt on, and my jacket that proudly says “Detroit” in bold letters across the front. Far different from what they would find me in on Sunday morning (my neatly pressed suit and tie) as I enter the pulpit to walk in the call that God has placed on my life.
They found themselves enamored with my son as he roamed up and down the aisle, smiling and playing as he often does, showing his trademark charming demeanor. They seemed to enjoy him. But as this movie about the utter degradation of Black people served as the backdrop of our scene, I wondered what it would be like if he had come into contact with a white couple 50 years ago.
I thank God for the time we live in where most racism is covert and under a veil. Where most of the country used to be openly proud of it, they try and hide it now as it’s no longer “PC”. But I can’t help but look back and wonder what life may have been like for me had I been born back then. I can’t help but wonder how I would’ve responded. I couldn’t help but appreciate the fact that because of the sacrifices of others who took nightsticks to the head and bullets to their bodies (both men and women), I’m able to sit in a Royal Oak, MI movie theater on the same row with an elderly white couple without worrying about whether or not we’d make it out alive.
As the movie ended, the elderly woman said to me “Great movie”. I cringed. How could we view such a horrific tale as “great”? My initial thought was, from her perspective, it was a “great” movie. It was cinema. It was a fascinating story. Maybe she could try to imagine what it was like for Blacks, but she couldn’t feel it like someone that had the blood of slavery and oppression running in his veins. For me, I couldn’t use the word “great” because I didn’t feel great. The reminder of what we went through as a race of people, just to be seen as people, is never “great” in my eyes. It’s hurtful. It’s uncomfortable. It defies logic and understanding. It’s inhumane.
When I consider the fact that toughness has been redefined in the Black man as how quick we are to disrespect our Black women, and how quick we are to fire guns in our communities, killing children in the crossfire, it’s unfortunate. When I consider the fact that such historical events used to inspire us to greatness because of the price that was paid, and now we barely pay attention to it, I don’t feel “great”. At times, I feel disheartened.
When I consider the fact that our people used to die for a cause and were considered soft because they were non-violent, and now our people die just because and they’re considered hard because of what street they lived on or what their Instagram and Facebook pics and statuses say they were, I don’t feel “great”, but rather a great sadness. Cinematically, I guess it was a great movie. But my response to this elderly woman was that it was not necessarily just a “great movie”, but an important one.
What made Selma so important in my eyes is showing the struggle that goes into struggle. It’s a reminder that convincing an oppressed people to fight for what was right took more than just a few magical speeches. It took men and woman that had already overcome their fear of dying, to convince others to do the same. It showed that infighting in the Black race is nothing new, and yet the fact remains that we can’t do anything against our oppressors when we’re against one another.
Selma showed that men and women of faith weren’t born that way, but they were tried and tested until they became that way. The only way to know that God will keep you is to go through some difficult and dangerous times and see the proof. And though there were casualties along the way, there can be no victory against evil without some casualties. God has His army, but so does the devil and they won’t go without a fight.
Selma showed both the strength and the frailties that exist in many great men of the cloth. The biggest lie ever told about preachers is that we’re morally bulletproof and we never do anything wrong. We’re held to a higher standard, but our humanity assures that we can and will fall short from time to time (Romans 3:23 doesn’t exclude anyone). Selma showed the willingness of a man like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to step out with courage and faith for a cause that was greater than he was, and the weaknesses that were exposed in the neglect that can come about as a result for those closest to you as you walk the path (King placing his family in harm’s way, his infidelity). And in the midst of it all, the weaknesses of a man like Dr. King could never overshadow his accomplishments, no matter how his enemies tried then and still try to this day to convince us otherwise.
Selma showed that Dr. King wasn’t the only brave person in the struggle. It’s been said many, many times before in the Black community, but it can’t be overstated, that many literally fought, bled, and died for a right that they’d never live to exercise, but many now take for granted and often ignore. It showed how King didn’t just lift the Black race, but the consciousness of an entire country, and even the world. Some whites never moved and inch in their position that Blacks were somehow subhuman and underserving of what now feels like a basic right of a citizen, but there were many that did, and even lost their lives in the fight.
Our eyes are now glazed with money, possessions, degrees and celebrity, so much so, that we don’t even know what real struggle is anymore. If we literally had to fight this fight today, I don’t know that we’d win. Men aren’t as strong as they used to be. Women aren’t as supportive as they once were. We’re all too easily bought off with gym shoes and cars, while being too distracted with social media and reality shows to care about anything beyond our own experiences. Selma reminded us of a time when we idolized freedom fighters that were willing to be jailed for their beliefs. They weren’t dying to get in the system, they were dying fighting the system.
While Hollywood has a history of glorifying our struggle for profit, I felt differently about Selma. Sure, there’s money to be made, but this movie reminded us of some things. Politicians are not activists, and every politician that succumbs to pressure isn’t in favor of what they’re doing, but rather looking to gain political ground. They’re often going with the flow or getting out in front of something that’s inevitable. There are no absolute truths or victories when you’re going through the system to tell a story about systematic racism. But Selma shines a light on one very important page in a book that’s still being written in this country. It reminds us of our history and warns us about our complacency. No, Selma didn’t make me feel “great”. But it is absolutely important.