My son Felix and I went to see Selma the night it opened. It's a powerful, intense film. We left the theater in tears, for different reasons.
Felix is 31 and didn't know much about the history of the civil rights movement. Watching the film in a packed theater, he was shocked by the brutality of the law enforcement, and awed by the bravery of the people. The personal struggle of Martin Luther King Jr. to carry the weight of the struggle was a new idea to him, as he'd only seen King as heroic, not as a man with a wife and children, and death threats a constant reality.
A few years ago I wrote a young adult book, Marching for Freedom, about Selma and the march to Montgomery. The process of writing the book was essentially a solo one, despite the amazing times I spent interviewing Selmians who'd been involved as kids during the protests, and the encouragement of my editor, Catherine Frank at Viking. I had walked the streets of Selma, time-traveling in my mind to get back to 1965. I'd crossed the bridge with hundreds of others in a candle-lit vigil the night we were waiting for election returns for Obama. I'd gone to Brown Chapel where King spoke. But the months and months of writing were alone in my study.
But now here I was in the theater, with the whole story unfolding in front of my eyes, and ringing in my ears. It was beautiful and painful at the same time. I knew each twist, each murder that was coming, each moment of crisis for King. It was an overwhelming and deeply moving experience.
Thank you Ava DuVernay, and Oprah, and everyone who made this film come into being. I'm even grateful to Joseph Califano who wrote The movie 'Selma' has a glaring flaw for the Washington Post, kicking off a controversy over the relationship between King and President Johnson. It was a complex, difficult relationship between two men who needed one another politically. I disagree with Califano that the drive for the vote came from LBJ, but it sure has given the film a big boost. You can look up plenty about it online.
There is a fabulous interview with director DuVernay on Terry Gross. DuVernay talks in depth about her creative process, choices she had to make, difficulties she faced.
One of the very cool choices she made was to suddenly switch to archival footage of the actual five day march in 1965 from Selma to Montgomery. It's what Felix calls "ground truthing" in mapping: You are checking something out, not from a distance (i.e. fictionalized account) but up close, on the ground (i.e. documentary footage). It's amazingly beautiful and works so well.
Jerome Burg and I made a Google Lit Trip for Marching for Freedom, which uses Google Earth to track where events take place. We mapped all the important sites in Selma and environs, but I am especially proud of the five days of the march. Archival photos, interviews, resource links, and questions for students to think about.