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Gary Younge

Demonstrations in Washington DC after the decision not to prosecute police officer Darren Wilson, who shot dead Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Ferguson, Selma and a mood for change

When the film trailer for Primary Colors, based on a novel about the election campaign of a philandering southern Democratic president, came out in 1998, the Monica Lewinsky scandal was in full bloom. I saw it at a movie theatre in Virginia, and when the announcer boomed, “At a cinema near you”, a man in the audience shouted, “It’s already here!”

Fruitvale Station, which documented the police shooting of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man, opened on 12 July 2013. The very next evening, moviegoers emerged and turned on their phones to discover that George Zimmerman had been acquitted in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin.

Every now and then, serendipity strikes and a film is released that not only starts a conversation, but joins one. The result is not so much art imitating life, but art illustrating and chiming with it. Given the length of time it takes to make a film, such synchronicity can rarely be planned; but so it has been with Selma, which covers three intense weeks in the struggle for voting rights in the small Alabama town in 1965: a struggle that became international news after the arrival of Martin Luther King and the violent clashes that ensued.

They stopped shooting Selma on 3 July last year. Two weeks later, Eric Garner, 43, was choked to death by a policeman in Staten Island, New York, after he refused to stop selling cigarettes in the street. The incident, which culminated with Garner pleading with police, “I can’t breathe”, was caught on video. His death sparked a wave of demonstrations in New York. And just over a month after Garner was killed, a suburb of St Louis, Missouri, was effectively placed under martial law following the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown; his hands had been held high in surrender. Over the next days, paramilitary vehicles rumbled past Ferguson’s strip malls as police ran amok, arresting people at will, threatening protesters and journalists with guns as demonstrations occasionally turned violent.

 Protesters march from Selma in 1965. Photograph: Stephen F Somerstein/Getty
Protesters march from Selma in 1965. Photograph: Stephen F Somerstein/Getty

As Ferguson erupted, actor David Oyelowo, who plays King in Selma, was in constant communication with his director, Ava DuVernay. “[We were] flabbergasted that we were seeing images akin to what we had just filmed,” he tells me. “To be honest, at that point we were feeling very bullish. OK, we always wanted to make a film that felt relevant and didn’t feel like a historical drama. We now have one that shows how effective we can be when these injustices rear their heads.”

On 24 November, a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the policeman who shot Brown, meaning he would not even have to stand trial. The decision sparked more demonstrations. Ten days later, a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict Daniel Panteleo, who choked Garner to death. Given the video evidence, this prompted mass protests under the campaign slogan and hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Five players for the St Louis Rams football team came on the field with their hands up in a surrender position. New York mayor Bill Di Blasio refused to endorse the Garner verdict. Pittsburgh police chief, Cameron McClay, posed with a sign stating: “I resolve to challenge racism @ work #EndWhiteSilence.”

Selma arrives amid a slew of 50th civil rights anniversaries – the march on Washington, the Birmingham campaign, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and Selma itself – at a time when African Americans and the young, in particular, have once again been galvanised into anti-racist activism across a country that has, once again, been forced into a conversation about racial inequality and state violence. Meanwhile, the chasm between black and white attitudes as to what shape that conversation should take is growing. Following Ferguson, African Americans were four times as likely to say they have very little confidence in the police treating them the same as whites; and 80% of blacks thought the grand jury made the wrong decision in not charging Wilson (64% of whites agreed with the jury).

“We can view the past and achieve our understanding of the past only through the eyes of the present,” argued the historian EH Carr in his landmark 1961 essay What Is History? “The historian is of his own age, and is bound to it by the conditions of human existence.” So it is that a film such as Selma can illustrate the connections between past and present.

 Martin Luther King leads the march. Photograph: Stephen F Somerstein/Getty
Martin Luther King leads the march. Photograph: Stephen F Somerstein/Getty

These are keenly felt by those on the ground. Just outside the mall in Ferguson, which had become the National Guard encampment not long after Brown was shot, I watched a black man in his 30s stopped and searched by around eight white armed policemen. As he gingerly emptied his pockets, careful not to move too quickly, a soliloquy of pure rage tumbled out, directed not just at the men before him, but at the system they represented. “Yes, I’m angry,” he shouted. “Four hundred years we been here. We built this place for free and y’all still hate us.”

Depictions of Martin Luther King, be they on page or screen, tend, at best, to deify him to within an inch of legacy and, at worst, to distort him completely. Shortly before King was assassinated, three years after the 1965 Selma protests, twice as many Americans had an unfavourable view of him as a favourable one. By 1999, when Americans were asked for their most admired figure of the 20th century, he came second to Mother Teresa. In between came a whitewashing, which reduced him from a radical activist who campaigned against the Vietnam war, poverty and racism to a patriotic, moderate preacher who just wanted folk to get along and his kids to play with white kids.

“Prejudice is born out of fear,” says Oyelowo, who was born in Britain to Nigerian parents. “When you fear something, the thing you try to do is to define it. To box it. To separate it from the pack, so you can pick it off. And I think that Martin Luther King has definitely been subjected to that. The homogenisation of the I Have a Dream speech. His visage. The romanticism. All of that makes him perfectly packageable, and therefore defangs his message and who he was.”

Selma does a good job of complicating that myth. This is partly about the moment in which it is based. From 1963, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (the more militant, grass roots youth wing of the civil rights movement), had been organising African Americans to register in Selma, with limited success. Within weeks of receiving the Nobel prize, King decided to come to Selma and focus the work of his organisation, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, on voter rights. “This time, more than any other time in his life, he’s at his most powerful,” DuVernay tells me. “You’re not watching a man becoming a leader, you’re watching a man lead.”

 David Oyelowo recreates the scene; the actor missed out on an Oscar nod, despite being widely tipped. Photograph: Atsushi Nishjima/Paramount
David Oyelowo recreates the scene; the actor missed out on an Oscar nod, despite being widely tipped. Photograph: Atsushi Nishjima/Paramount

As demonstrations escalated, so did the state violence. Jimmy Lee Jackson, 26, was shot dead by a state trooper while trying to protect his mother. King, who was not in town for many of these disturbances, called for a 50-mile march from Selma to Alabama’s state capital, Montgomery, demanding voting rights. SNCC thought this ill-conceived and refused to endorse it. The SCLC went ahead anyway, even though King was not there to lead it. As the protesters left Brown Chapel, where much of the organising was centred, to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge over Alabama river, they were confronted by state troopers, some on horseback, armed with tear gas and billy clubs. They pummelled demonstrators indiscriminately, charging, beating and trampling them as they scattered on what became known as Bloody Sunday. “The horses were more humane than the troopers,” recalls Amelia Boynton, a local activist, in her autobiography Bridge Across Jordan. “As I stepped aside from the trooper’s club, I felt a blow on my arm. Another blow by a trooper, as I was gasping for breath, knocked me to the ground and there I lay, unconscious.” That night, ABC interrupted the film Judgement At Nuremberg for a 15-minute report: Selma was international news.

Despite efforts by President Lyndon Johnson’s administration to dissuade him, King resolved to march again, and called on clergy and activists from around the country to join him the following Tuesday. More than 1,000 came. At a meeting shortly before the march, King told supporters, “We have no alternative but to keep moving...We’ve gone too far now to turn back.”

Then he marched them to the crest of the bridge, knelt, prayed and, to the astonishment of his followers, turned back, leaving them confused and betrayed. (He later claimed he only ever intended to lead marchers to police lines, to expose the continuing violence in the hope that Washington would act.) King vowed to complete the march at a more propitious time. That night, a white unitarian minister, James Reeb, was clubbed to death by racists. Within a week, Johnson went before Congress to announce voting rights legislation. King eventually led 4,000 demonstrators to Montgomery. One, Viola Liuzzo, a white homemaker from Detroit, was shot dead by members of the Ku Klux Klan as she ferried protesters between Montgomery and Selma.

“Victories are taught with more emphasis than the journeys it takes to get to those victories,” Dede Gardner, one of Selma’s producers, tells me. “A lot of people in the cast didn’t know about Turnaround Tuesday, or even Bloody Sunday. They didn’t know three attempts were made before it actually happened.”

 Civil rights marchers arrive in Montgomery in November 1965. Photograph: Morton Broffman/Getty
Civil rights marchers arrive in Montgomery in November 1965. Photograph: Morton Broffman/Getty

The film shows King as a complicated, brilliant, flawed individual who is part of a dynamic, fractious movement, and one in which women play an important role. We see him as a strategist as well as a moralist, a man who is constantly calculating both what is possible and what is necessary, and not always succeeding.

This complexity, and the consequent lack of schmaltz for one of America’s most revered figures, may be one reason it did not win the Oscar nominations many had predicted: it has been nominated for best picture and best original song, but missed out on the best actor, director and script categories.

Oyelowo is philosophical about the omission. “The demographic of the Academy does not reflect American society, so it’s understandable that there is an archaic quality to that body. I’m a big believer in letting the work do the talking. We have been drawn in, in the past, to arguments and conversations that are counter-productive to what I see as the end goal, which is to continue to create work that is undeniable. My job is just to make it very difficult to be denied. Whatever happens beyond that is beyond my control. I think it’s going to take a while for Hollywood to accept and embrace black protagonists not as subservient but as leaders, as heroes, as in the centre of their own narrative, driving things forward. There has been such a dearth of that. And it’s going to take time for that to become the norm.”

A lot can happen in seven years. On 4 March 2007, the junior senator for Illinois and recently declared candidate for president, Barack Obama, delivered a speech from Selma’s Brown Baptist church, in which he cast himself and his peers as the heirs to King’s legacy. King and his fellow activists in Selma all those years ago were the Moses generation that had parted the waters; Obama described himself as part of the Joshua generation, to whom it was charged to put the principles into practice. “The bridge outside was crossed by blacks and whites,” he said, “northerners and southerners, teenagers and children, the beloved community of God’s children. They wanted to take those steps together, but it was left to the Joshuas to finish the journey Moses had begun, and today we’re called to be the Joshuas of our time, to be the generation that finds our way across the river.”

 The failure to prosecute the policeman who choked Eric Garner in New York led to protests in LA. Photograph: David McNew/Getty
The failure to prosecute the policeman who choked Eric Garner in New York led to protests in LA. Photograph: David McNew/Getty

This was also the year Oyelowo came to the US, first read the script for Selma and felt a “spiritual calling” to play the part. Stephen Frears, who was then attached to direct it, thought Oyelowo wasn’t quite ready for such a role. Several other directors came and went before Lee Daniels finally cast him in 2010. But while that film came close to being made – twice Oyelowo went into prep to play King, once putting on a stone – it kept faltering at the 11th hour. Daniels moved on and Oyelowo “campaigned long and hard” for DuVernay, who had directed him in another film, to take over. There was a personal resonance: DuVernay’s father was from Lowndes County, right between Selma and Montgomery. “I know what it feels like,” she says. “I know it very deeply. That was my entry point.”

But once again, at the 11th hour, it looked as though the film might not make it to production. “Every director who came on board needed about 20% more money to make the film than was available,” says Oyelowo, who decided to call in a favour. He had worked with Oprah Winfrey on The Butler. “I had shared my dream with her of playing this role. She said, ‘I’d do anything and everything I can to help you with that.’ So, not wanting to look that gift horse in the mouth, I said, ‘OK, I need you, mama.’ And she came on board and that literally was the moment we were off to the races.”

He feels there is a direct connection between Obama’s political ascendancy and the growing number of films such as Selma. “Before Selma got made, I was in four other films that touch on civil rights: Lincoln, Red Tails, The Help and The Butler. I am certain those films would not have been made without Obama in office. Because they were all born out of a desire to gain context as to how we have arrived at this moment, where we have a black president. These films were not being made before 2008. They just weren’t. If they touched on race, slavery, civil rights, racial injustice or unrest, they almost always had a white protagonist holding a black character’s hand.

“A lot of them [had been] in development for years and couldn’t get off the ground. Red Tails: you’re talking George Lucas, he’d been wanting to make that film for 25 years before it got made. Spielberg wanted to make Lincoln for 15 years before it got made. Those are the brightest lights in Hollywood, in terms of their ability to get films made, so I think that there’s no accident.”

 David Oyelowo, Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey on set. Photograph: Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount
David Oyelowo, Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey on set. Photograph: Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount

The parallels between 1965 and 2014 can be exaggerated. The battle in Selma focused on the right to vote. In Ferguson, an overwhelmingly black town where the city council, police force and school board were all run by whites, very few African Americans used their vote in local elections, insisting it wouldn’t change anything. Meanwhile, on a national level, African Americans at the last presidential election had a higher rate of voter turnout than any other racial group. As a result, the president is a black man from the north, rather than a white man from the south; and, while Selma is in the Deep South, most of the recent police shootings have taken place in the north or midwest.

But nor can the connections and continuities be dismissed. After the Ferguson verdict, the TV split-screen, with a black president appealing for calm on one side and alienated black youth looting and burning on the other, laid bare the limits of what constitutes success in the post-civil-rights era. At one point in DuVernay’s film, King asks his key aide Ralph Abernathy what freedom he has really secured if black people have the right to eat at any diner but cannot afford the bill. The same question resonates today, when racial discrepancies in wealth, income and incarceration are greater than they were in 1965. If the past 50 years have proved anything, it is that the abstract right to do anything is not the same as actual equality. And while the Selma demonstrators accepted non-violence as a strategy, not all accepted it as a principle; some did, on occasion, fight back.

The most important distinction, however, may be that Selma took place 10 years after the Montgomery bus boycott that made King famous. Over that decade, a national movement had been gaining strength, developing strategy and nurturing leaders. DuVernay points out that, just as activists had been working on voting rights in Selma long before King arrived, neither last year’s shootings nor the activism that followed is new: “People have reached a heightened state of awareness, but community activists have been working continually when people weren’t necessarily paying attention. It never ends. It’s like a fire you have to stoke. You have to tend to it.”

It is difficult to see that same level of coherence today, in what looks like a mediated, episodic response to individual events. It may also be that we’re looking in the wrong places, or for the wrong signs. In October, I followed a band of 100 or so protesters in St Louis as they took over the streets to protest the shooting of 18-year-old Vonderitt Myers by the police. They yelled, “Hands up, don’t shoot!”, and hung American flags upside down.

As they meandered, aimless and angry, spoiling for confrontation (there were minor clashes as police brandished their pepper spray), it felt like a metaphor for this current period. This was a mostly young, racially mixed group of people who, I’m sure, were every bit as smart and committed as those who marched in Selma. But 21st century American racism offers fewer obvious targets. Oprah has said that the recent protests have lacked “leadership”: “I think it’s wonderful to march and to protest,” she told People magazine. “But what I’m looking for is some kind of leadership to come out of this, to say, ‘This is what has to change.’” But while the endemic nature of discrimination is embedded in the economy, the judicial system, schools and prisons, these goals remain elusive. Moreover, today’s activists have demonstrated they have little faith in the leadership of Oprah’s generation. At a march in Washington DC in December, sponsored by civil rights spokesperson Al Sharpton, demonstrators briefly took over the stage, in protest at an established leader taking credit for their work. In Ferguson, Jesse Jackson was warmly greeted, and then booed when he tried to take a collection for his organisation.

Since Occupy Wall Street, a debate has continued as to whether these flashes of activism represent movements or moments. In this case, DuVernay says, it’s too early to tell: “To call it a moment when we’re in it is to dismiss the possibility that it might be more.”

Dede Gardner, one of the film’s producers, tells me, “I don’t think all of a sudden [police shootings] is an issue that people are upset about. I think it’s been an issue for a really long time. And it has deserved attention for a really long time. But the fact that there’s a movie that shows people coming together and linking arms and being tacticians and being strategists, and going again and again and again and again, in the face of people trying to stop them – that seems to be finding fuel in our culture.”

Selma is released on Friday.

Hugh Muir will be discussing Martin Luther King’s legacy with Bryan Stevenson, a US human rights lawyer and campaigner against racial discrimination in the US prison system, at a Guardian Live event in London on 5 February.

This article was amended on 2 February 2015 because an earlier version said Martin Luther King was assassinated “three years after the 1968 Selma protests”. King was assassinated in 1968, three years after the 1965 Selma protests.

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