Unspooling justice: 'Selma' tells story of civil-rights movement

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca for as little as $5 per month!

PARK CITY, Utah -- On March 21, 1915, a motion picture was screened for the first time inside the White House. President Woodrow Wilson sat down to watch D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. The film, considered one of the most nakedly racist of all time, falsifies the history of Reconstruction, depicting African-Americans, freed from slavery, as dominant, violent and oppressive toward Southern whites. Wilson said of the film, "It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." The film would serve as a powerful recruiting tool for the Ku Klux Klan.

One hundred years later, another film was screened at the White House, this time at the invitation of the first African-American president. The film was Selma. The film's director, Ava DuVernay, watched it with the First Couple. I met DuVernay here at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where, in 2012, she was the first African-American woman to win the festival's Best Director award, for an earlier film. We sat down for an interview at Sundance Headquarters, where she recounted her feelings after the screening: "It was beautiful to be in the White House in 2015 with a film like Selma, knowing that in 1915 the first film to ever unspool at the White House was The Birth of a Nation."

Selma is the story of one of the key moments in the civil-rights movement, the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, best remembered for "Bloody Sunday" on March 7, when the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge was violently attacked by Alabama State Police. A young John Lewis, then a leader of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and now a long-standing member of Congress, was one of the march organizers. Police beat and bloodied him, fracturing his skull. DuVernay's film puts that march into historical context. Said DuVernay: "Selma is a story of justice and dignity. It's about these everyday people. That's what I loved about it. ... It's about the power of the people."

The story is also about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who played a central role in organizing the marches that followed Bloody Sunday. DuVernay told me: "There's been no major motion picture released by a studio, no independent motion picture, in theaters, with King at the centre, in the 50 years since these events happened, when we have biopics on all kinds of ridiculous people. And nothing on King? No cinematic representation that's meaningful and centred. So, it was just something I couldn't pass up."

Selma gained national attention, not only because the film is an Oscar nominee for best picture, but also because DuVernay was not nominated for best director, prompting a furor on social media under the Twitter hashtag "#OscarsSoWhite." A 2012 survey conducted by the Los Angeles Times found Oscar voters are 94 per cent white and 76 per cent male, and the average age is 63 years old.

The film also has drawn controversy because of its depiction of President Lyndon Johnson as a reluctant supporter of voting rights, sometimes even an obstructionist, who had the FBI monitor and harass King. "I'm not here to rehabilitate anyone's image or be a custodian of anyone's legacy," DuVernay told me. She went on: "We have to work without permission. Especially as women in this industry. Who are we asking for permission to do what we want to do? That should be eradicated. You need to set a path and start walking."

Far from Sundance, but not so far from Selma, a real-life drama unfolded this week in a South Carolina courtroom, as the 1961 convictions of a group of civil-rights activists were overturned. The Friendship Nine were young African-Americans who sat at a whites-only lunch counter in Rock Hill, S.C. They were sentenced to 30 days of hard labour. On Wednesday, Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III overturned their convictions, saying, "We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history." Judge Hayes is the nephew of the judge who sentenced the men 54 years ago. Sixteenth Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett thanked the men, for himself, for his daughter and for making the state of South Carolina and the nation a better place.

Over in Selma, on the weekend of March 7, people from around the world will gather to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic "Bloody Sunday" march. Barack Obama, president of the United States, will be there as well. Change happens, slowly, but it happens. Could the birth of a new nation be at hand?

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,200 stations in North America. She is the co-author of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times bestseller.

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.