I was standing at a urinal when the man next to me suddenly blurted out, “You just saw Selma?”
“Um … yeah,” was all I managed to stammer in response. I figure the world is divided into two types of people—restroom conversationalists and … well, everybody else. I’m in the latter group. And even though I was eager to talk about the movie, there wasn’t any way I was going to be able to hold up my end of a Siskel & Ebert routine—certainly not while consciously staring at the little deodorizer in the drain of a ceramic urinal bolted onto a bathroom wall. But it didn’t matter. The man next to me had enough to say for both of us.
We had all just gotten out of the new film, Selma, which focuses on Martin Luther King, the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, and the birth of the recently dismantled Voting Rights Act. It’s been a long time since I saw a movie where everyone stayed for the credits—not because they were hoping for a Nick Fury cameo or a teaser for the sequel—but rather because after watching the events of the film, none of us were ready to let the story go. So we all sat and listened to “Glory,” the John Legend/Common end credits song in which Common name checks Ferguson and reminds us just how relevant the events of this 50-year-old story really are.
When there was finally nothing else to do, we all gathered our belongings and made our way out of the dark. I was walking behind an older African-American couple who appeared to be in their mid-to-late-fifties. They were talking about the movie and I was consciously working not to eavesdrop, which is particularly hard to do when you’re simultaneously straining to hear what someone has to say. The woman insisted that she never could’ve done what the characters in the movie had done—never could have suffered the indignities, never could’ve found the courage to stand up and risk death. The man who was with her seemed puzzled and wanted to know what she was doing back in those days. When she said she was only in the 8th grade when Dr. King was eventually murdered, the man couldn’t believe it. “You were in the 8th grade in ’68? Aw, they must’ve held you back. Several times!”
I chuckled and wanted to hear more, but nature was calling. It was just as well. As you’ve probably guessed by now, it was only a couple minutes later when the man I had been following entered the restroom and sidled up to the urinal next to mine.
“You just saw Selma?”
“Um … yeah.”
“Man! Everything that’s going on, everything that’s happening here … it’s all because of that stuff.”
“Yeah,” I agreed even though I wasn’t sure what he meant. At first I thought he was talking about the contemporary relevance of the movie. While the previews might make Selma seem like a distant history lesson or a chapter in a school textbook, in reality it’s more about what’s happening in the world today than any movie you’re likely to see. Concerned about privacy and the dangers of domestic spying? Frustrated by politicians who seem almost incapable of doing the right thing? Outraged by recent efforts at voter suppression in several states? Worried about the militarization of the police? Angered by the excessive force in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, and dozens of other locations? Selma shines a glaring spotlight on all these issues.
So I thought maybe that’s what my new bathroom friend was talking about, but I was wrong. Instead, he was trying to process the fact that without the events in the movie, he, personally, wouldn’t have been there today—not in that theater and certainly not in that restroom.
As I headed over to the sink, I asked him, “Where were you back then? Were you living here? In Nashville?”
“No man, I was in South Carolina. Went to an all-black school.”
“Really? Where in South Carolina?”
“Oh … yeah. Uh huh.” Okay, so now you know why I’m not much of a journalist. I was trying hard, but I just couldn’t come up with anything to say. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested. In fact, I was desperate to hear more from this guy. But I didn’t have anything worth adding. He had made his point, and it was one of the same points that Selma’s director, Ava DuVernay, was making in the film. The events depicted in Selma were more than just famous or dramatic. They brought about very real, very tangible change. This man in the restroom was the living proof. Here was someone in his late fifties, active, vibrant, and witty, whose entire life was changed by the actions of those marchers in Selma. Here was someone whose life was directly changed by the actions of Martin Luther King.
I haven’t really talked much about Dr. King yet, but his character is the heart of Selma. The fact that he’s also an interesting character is a tribute to DuVernay and to the actor, David Oyelowo, who plays him. Dr. King is not an easy character to dramatize. Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, he has “become a name.” He’s such a familiar figure, such an icon, that little about him seems human anymore. But the version of Dr. King that Oyelowo plays is one I haven’t seen before. Gone is the youthful orator and philosopher of non-violence. That person had already led the famous bus boycott and the march on Washington before this film begins. The Dr. King we’re introduced to in Selma may be more famous than ever, but he feels like he’s past his prime. Tired, slow, sagging, and constantly plagued by guilt and self-doubt, this Dr. King is barely keeping it all together.
In one of the earliest scenes, when he decides to go to Selma, he phones the legendary Gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson—labeled in the oblivious FBI report as a “Negro entertainer”—and asks her to sing to him. The song she chooses, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” is an obvious choice because it was one of her most famous, but the lyrics also speak directly to the way Oyelowo plays King.
Precious Lord, take my handLead me on, let me standI am tired, I am weak, I am wornThrough the storm, through the nightLead me on, to the lightTake my hand, precious Lord, lead me on.
As Jackson sings into the phone, King slumps against a door facing, and it’s clear that this warrior may not be up to his next fight. From that point on, the granite statue version of Dr. King is gone, replaced by the all-too-human protagonist who may not have enough fight left in him to finish the job.
As the movie makes clear, it takes the proverbial village to keep the fight going, with King’s wife, Coretta, the now-legendary John Lewis, and even Malcolm X—just three weeks before his murder—all doing their part to keep everyone’s eyes on the prize.
This isn’t by-the-numbers historical filmmaking, full of famous quotes and iconic poses. It’s deeply felt drama—emotional, poignant, and blisteringly relevant. And, unlike most movies, you don’t have to look too hard to find the living legacy of its story.
Sometimes it’s as close as the next urinal.