Collected Works: Film
directed by Ava DuVernay
Light pours through the neo-gothic window of a stairwell, lending the walls’ peachy tones an ethereal glow. Dressed for church, five girls form a procession of flouncing pastel dresses and pristine white gloves. Their chatter is as soft as their footsteps, yet foreboding music suggests that all is not well. Seconds after falling silent, the score is replaced by the sharp sound of shattering glass and the splintering of wood. Stockinged limbs and lace-edged fabrics ripple with the reverberation of a slow-motion explosion. Hair ribbons are subsumed by the confetti of dust and destruction.
In 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. led a protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, one of three marches that proved pivotal in securing equal voting rights for racial minorities. Ava DuVernay’s film both celebrates this victory and mourns the human tragedies involved. For every panoramic shot that captures the inspiring swell of demonstrators, a scene of suffering provides a dark counterpoint. We witness violence not only beneath the veils of tear gas on Bloody Sunday, but also within a pervasive fog of fear and oppression.
Though his resonant words permeate Selma, King is not the only hero here. As he speaks at the conclusion of the march, the camera soars over the jubilant crowd, picking out the faces of individuals. Coretta King stands steadfast, despite the dread engulfing her family. Viola Liuzzo listens attentively, only hours before her murder at the hands of Klansmen. Cager Lee, the eighty-four-year-old grandfather of a young man who was earlier shot and killed, will soon vote for the first time. These few figures stand for the myriads of those unnamed.
Just as this scene reminds us of the people caught up in this historical moment, documentary footage accompanies the vivid recreation of the march itself. We see real protestors move across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, waving, smiling, clapping, singing, and walking in defiance. But Selma is far more than a history lesson; it is a raw rendering of despair and triumph. As the marchers place one foot in front of the other, we may remember the sunlit stairwell from the film’s opening scenes, and pray that the ground gained here will not similarly crumble.
Words by Emma McKinlay