“From the bridge at Selma
To the mouth of the river Nile
From the swamplands of Louisiana
To the high peaks of Kilimanjaro
From Dr. King's America
To Nelson Mandela's Africa
The journey of equality moves on
On, on, on”
Bono’s rap as the flags of African states flashed up and down on Willie Williams light bulb curtained back drop of the Vertigo Tour as the band cracked up Where The Streets Have No Name was my first real awareness of Selma. Tonight I watched the movie that will place it in the cultural conscious for a good while to come. Ava Du Vernay’s film on Dr. Martin Luther King concentrates on this short phase but very big moment in the Civil Rights Movement.
In the dialogue we get the clever and imaginative strategy of the entire campaign condensed into a semtex sized bite. What we also get is a character sketch of Dr King that is deep and wide and high. British actor David Oyelowa does an amazing job at conjuring up the frailties, doubt, wisdom and extraordinary strength of King. It is the vulnerable moments that touch the most. MLK is such an icon that the idea he had weaknesses is hardly thinkable. Selma paints the picture of an ordinary human with deep faith and an extraordinary vocation.
The film is simply a classic in every cinematic way but I’ll leave that for the movie experts. For me a few things stood out. Firstly, the part that songs played in the movement. I was particularly taken by the scene where King phones Mahalia Jackson in the midst of his uncertainty just to get her to sing to him. My Masters Dissertation looked at the transformational power of song, looking closely at the Civil Rights Movement, and this scene validated my thesis. It is there throughout the movie. When President Johnston uses the phrase We Shall Overcome in his speech to declare the rights for the black vote I had to google it to confirm it was true. John Legend and Common’s Glory as the song that kicks in when the credits role is a powerful and perfect end for the movie; reason to break the horrible and disrespectful tradition of leaving the cinema before the credits.
Secondly I was taken by the depth of faith at work in the movement and the movie. The use of Scripture through the dialogue, particularly at times of crisis was striking. I was unaware that that it was at Selma that John Lewis appeared on the scene. I missed the privilege of time with him last year when a meeting before mine over ran. I was disappointed and got a signed copy of his book Cross The Bridge as consolation. The first chapter of that book is about how faith was the thing that pulled them through the beating, jailing and murder of friends. The movie for me is a powerful illustration of how Christian faith at its best can be socially transformative. I looked at some of our current world issues and was saddened that that faith that brought change to America is a more peripheral resource of our society.
Finally, the over riding thought as I left the QFT was what does this mean for me? What kind of Belfast, Northern Ireland and world am I imagining, seeing vision of and strategically playing my part in making it a reality. Where do I need my faith to be brave? For me the film was a sermon and, with sermons, the listening is not the point, the response is what it is all about. I am marinating, surmising and seeking God as MLK did on that bridge. There was only one Martin Luther King, only one John Lewis. We will not get up the day after watching Selma and find ourselves on the forefront of history. However, we are all called to follow Jesus into Kingdom coming, shalom bringing redemption, turning the world in repentance from how it is to how it can be.
Selma shows us one ordinary, flawed, sometimes doubting human being whose understanding of God’s ways and faith in God drove him to make a contribution. Lord show me mine… And then Legend and Common with a choir sing…
One day, when the glory comes
It will be ours, it will be ours
Oh, one day, when the war is one
We will be sure, we will be here sure…
Oh, glory, glory
My soul sighs, “Phew!”