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MLK, ‘Selma,’ and the Feeling

Emil Photo Again Edited 61b7dabb61239

As we observe Martin Luther King Day, I hope you went out and saw Selma. And if you already did, I hope you saw it again. And again. Take different friends. Take the ones who think “Bloody Sunday” is just a song by Bono and U2. Or when you say, Selma, they ask Selma Who?

If you’re like me, a self-proclaimed ethnicist, diversity observer and race watcher, then Selma is our “Star Wars.”

There should be as many in line to see this movie as there were people lining up to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

What do I know? I was just 10 at the time. When it was happening, I don’t think my immigrant parents understood what was going on in the world. They were survivors in America.

That’s why we need to see Selma before things get undone like the very voting rights the marchers fought for back then.

I saw the movie recently, and I was reminded how location doesn’t matter.

Ferguson in Missouri, Staten Island in New York. Oakland’s Fruitvale Station. Selma is now.

But then that’s what the rapper Common said on the Golden Globes, when he picked up the movie’s only big award of that night, for the best song, “Glory.”

There’s been much made about some historical inaccuracies in Selma. But movie narratives and historical narratives are allowed to be at odds on some details (like whose idea it was for one last unifying march).

That, however, shouldn’t obscure the bigger picture.

Selma wasn’t just one march. How many know it was many marches, starting from “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, to “Turnaround Tuesday” on March 9, then several smaller mini-marches, culminating in the big one on March 25.

The movie gives us that big picture. And since we all live in the present, it gives you a real sense of how quickly we seem as a society to be marching backwards. Last year’s revision on voting rights is just one thing. Continuing threats to affirmative action, another. Top it all with the normalization of inequality, and 50 years after Selma, those days seem practically pre-historic.

The movie will also give you more appreciation for Dr. King.

In journalism, the idea of a man’s age and name are considered the basic facts.

Start with his age. He was just 39 when he died in 1968.

That means everything in the movie was done when he was just 36 years old.

Then there’s his stature. By his legacy, I’m used to the idea that King was probably not as tall as his monument in Washington, D.C., but maybe close to it.

Of course, the facts are he was just 5-foot-7-inches.

Dr. King wasn’t civil rights’ slam dunk center. He was the MVP point guard.

But that’s good. Because if you saw the movie, you know he had an entourage. And he had to bring everyone together.

And not just LBJ and the Dixiecrats. Within the movement there were different perspectives — the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Sort of like the pre-Super Bowl NFL and the AFL. And let’s not forget Malcom X, of whom the movie makes a passing reference.

For me, the movie brought all that home, and has the power to refresh in the public’s memory some vital big ideas from the past.

That’s why I was glad the movie did get recognized as a nominee for this year’s Best Picture Oscar.

I just wish the movie’s actors and director got a nod.

Sure, in the long run, movie award season from the Globes to the Oscars, and every little award program in between, are just marketing tools to sell more movie tickets. But since the movies are created with audiences in mind, the best of them acknowledged in award season, go down in the time capsule as a kind of societal barometer.

What was 2014 like? A look at film award nominees in 2015 show us that last year’s batch was far from the perfect mirror of society.

If not for Selma in the Best Picture category, there’s no sense of representation by people of color. They’re calling this season the Whitest Oscars in some time.

David Oyelowo’s snub was most notable. Maybe it’s because it seems that King has become almost a cliché for the big, powerful speech, we see it and it no longer excites. Oyelowo’s King was a good one. But less for the oratory, more for the simple responses he gives to the big questions posed by his wife, Coretta Scott King (played by Carmen Ejogo) when she probes his infidelity.

That said King was not a perfect man. Nor was Selma a perfect movie.

But it’s our perfect cinematic reminder that we had the feeling in 1965 — a big year for society’s biggest ideas. Fifty years later, our ambitions for equality only seem to shrink.

Lost the feeling? See the movie. Dream again.

Emil Guillermo writes on issues of race, culture and politics for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund ( Like him at; Twitter@emilamok.

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