Magazine article The Christian Century

Epic March

Magazine article The Christian Century

Epic March

Article excerpt

All eight movies nominated for best picture in this year's Oscar race are about men, and all but one of them are about white men. Some are ordinary men living ordinary lives, as in the coming-of-age masterpiece Boyhood. Many are exceptional men in exceptional circumstances, as in American Sniper, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash, and The Imitation Game. Others are eccentrics who win our hearts with their fervent resistance to normalcy, as in Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel. But in a year of collective protest and activism, of public debate about the meaning of our social union, these stories of lone heroes seem out of touch with the times.

The one exception on the list is Selma, about the civil rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in 1965 to secure voting rights for black citizens. Selma is also about a great male leader, Martin Luther King Jr., and actor David Oyelowo highlights his brilliance, charisma, and leadership. But the film is not just the story of King's life, and not just the story of one particular campaign. Rather, it captures something more elusive in our fictions and in our politics: the feeling and dynamic of a collective movement.

The film opens with King's acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, a great set piece for a "great man" story. But after quickly emphasizing King's singularity and international acclaim, the film places him back within the tussle of an unwieldy movement. King's voice becomes one of many in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who are debating what issues the group will pursue and what tactics they will employ.

The film captures the emotional fabric of collective organizing. In one scene SCLC organizers are sprawled around a living room late in the night discussing the impediments to black voting in the state. The scene explains what black people were facing when they tried to register to vote: voucher requirements, poll taxes, intimidation tactics, and farcical registration exams. But the scene also evokes the rare moments when camaraderie and common purpose are transformed into the fixed resolve and unified action of a movement.

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The viewer follows the organizers as they interact with each other in prison cells, around kitchen tables, and on long car rides through rural Alabama. …

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