Voices: Selma, Cast Loose from Its Historical Moorings

CHICAGO, IL (February 24, 2015) — In spite of its snubs at the Oscars, I’ve been thinking a lot about the movie Selma lately.

In May I plan to travel to the Democratic Republic of the Congo as part of a North Park Seminary course. Among our pre-course reading is King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, by Adam Hochschild, about the establishment of the Belgian colony of Congo—a process that included exploiting and terrorizing the people who lived there in order to make the venture profitable. The book also details the efforts that people took to end those practices, in what is considered to be the first global human rights campaign.

At one point Hochschild muses on the shock he felt when he first heard that five to eight million people had been killed during the colonization—and the further shock that he had never heard about it earlier in his life. That number is comparable to those killed in the Holocaust, after all.

But then Hochschild writes, “It occurred to me that, like millions of other people, I had read something about that time and place after all: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. However, with my college lecture notes on the novel filled with scribbles about Freudian overtones, mythic echoes, and inward vision, I had mentally filed away the book under fiction, not fact.”

He expands on this idea further: “European and American readers, not comfortable acknowledging the genocidal scale of the killing in Africa at the turn of the century, have cast Heart of Darkness loose from its historical moorings. We read it as a parable for all times and places, not as a book about one time and place.”

Reading this, I realized that I had been responding to Selma in a similar way.

I was familiar with the historical events this film portrays. But when I reflected on the movie, I didn’t focus on the events; rather, I found myself talking about the film’s technical elements.

I talked about the dramatic impact of the visual effects in the bombing scene. About the choice of story elements that showed King in a variety of spaces—accepting the Nobel Prize, in the Oval Office, with his family, eating with friends, leading marches. I discussed the direction and editing that made some of the march scenes almost appear like actual historical footage, and about how the actors portrayed King, Lyndon Johnson, and others.

I had not talked about the sickening sound of batons hitting human flesh when protestors were attacked. Or about how much I wanted to scream in the opening scene when one woman tried to register to vote. I didn’t talk about the terror people must have felt when bombs went off or the brutality demonstrators experienced as they fled through the city.

And I didn’t talk about the incredible perseverance shown by those who came out to march not once, but three times, or the courage it took to join a second attempt after the first was literally beaten back.

“American readers, not comfortable acknowledging the genocidal scale of the killing in Africa at the turn of the century, have cast Heart of Darkness loose from its historical moorings….”

I think I, too, am uncomfortable acknowledging the depth of depravity in such acts of terror.

But even beyond avoiding considering violence from the victims’ point of view, I’ve been even more reluctant to think about it from the perspective of the perpetrator. It is too easy to feel self-righteous in hindsight, to insist that I would never do the same, to claim that I would never be like them.

I am realizing that to really reflect on Selma would mean to recognize the conviction that allowed the assailants to act as if they were in the right. It would mean acknowledging that my own convictions, my own assessment of justice and injustice in today’s society, might be incomplete as well.

If we are not willing to acknowledge our nation’s complete history, with its negative aspects along with the good, we cannot move forward. Until we have recognized the full extent of the damage we have caused our fellow citizens, we won’t know how much work needs to be done to correct it.


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