Rudnik > The Ghosts of “Selma”

| January 20, 2015


Nick Rudnik, Valdosta Today Opinion Contributor:

Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” is, in a word, haunting.

“Selma” represents struggle. The very name of the rural Alabama hamlet has become a rather ubiquitous heuristic of great human tumult—and triumph. The film’s drama is as oppressive as the beating Alabama sun. The sheer humanity is palpable.

Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” is greater than any single character; greater than its very human, very accessible hero in David Oyelowo’s masterful Martin Luther King. The unfolding drama of “Selma,” is more than the conquests of any single leader—for the film details the trials and aspirations of an entire movement; an entire people. “Selma” is telling a deeply emotional, indeed deeply spiritual, saga. It’s telling the story of the greatest single struggle of the twentieth century: the battle for African American voting rights; the battle for true equality.

The divinization of the colloquial is unparalleled. Immediately following the opening dialogue between King and his wife, Coretta, we find ourselves in Birmingham, September 1963. Students of history know all too well what is to soon come. Four little black girls saunter down a church staircase, dressed in starched white Sunday dresses, making idle chit-chat as little girls so often do. Then, bam. An explosion. The 16th Street Baptist Church becomes a victim of racist violence. The church is bombed.

Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair are all murdered while at Sunday school. The bombing makes the viewer jump in their seat—at the violent nature of the explosion and at the utter horror they just witnessed. No musical interlude for suspense, nor slowing of the frame for drama. Just, an explosion. A powerful, unforgiving explosion. Good and evil are pitted against each other. Good typified in the innocent four little girls sacrificed before the very real, evil altar of racism and segregation. This is Ava DuVernay’s “Selma.”

Well-known for her indie films, DuVernay excels in highlighting the drama between the film’s climaxes—the everyday particulars of midcentury life. From the idle chatter and the meticulous planning in nondescript church halls, to the strain the movement puts on Martin and Coretta’s marriage: these are the film’s “diamonds in the rough.” They underscore the human condition inherent to an almost folkloric movement.

Following the planning and negotiation comes direct action—as King himself frequently recounted. We’re taken to the “battlefield.” As Joshua had his Jericho, Jesus his Sea of Galilee, and Martin Luther his church door in Wittenberg, Martin Luther King has his Edmund Pettus Bridge. This, as with the others, will be King’s proving ground; King’s moment. The five day march from Selma to Montgomery for equal voting rights begins at the bridge. In fact, the battle is won at the bridge. There, demonstrators meet evil in the eye. They’re beaten and tear-gassed by the Alabama Highway Patrol. The skirmish would become known as Bloody Sunday, 1965.

“Selma” meets the viewer with a metaphorical haze; perhaps the haze of “combat” or a thin veil separating us from the not-so-distant past—a past we can’t quite touch, or fully understand, in our own time. “Selma” is a nightmare full of ghosts. DuVernay introduces the ghosts of Selma with an unmatched nonchalance. Jimmie Lee Jackson, Malcolm X, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo are central to the film, yet they’re kept in a sort of indifferent periphery. It is their characters, among others, that are the ghosts; they haunt us for we know they’re all gone. Their characters are not fully developed, but they don’t have to be. They’re merely reminders of what was lost, to have all that we have gained. They are the price we’ve paid. And a hefty one at that.

The Edmund Pettus Bridge is the central symbol of this piece of art. As rust runs down the bridge’s trusses, it appears the bridge is bleeding; perhaps even crying. The bridge is the symbol that hovers above this nightmare—bleeding, crying, sharing their pain, much like God. The bridge of “Selma” is akin to the all-seeing eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The bleeding bridge, a symbol of pain, hope, and the divine—leering from above at a modern Babylon.

“Selma” ends with King’s speech in Montgomery on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol—a ubiquitous symbol of segregation and iniquity in itself. The movement doesn’t end. There’s no great, resounding resolution. For the work continues. “Selma” is timely for it reminds us that despite how far we’ve come, there’s more work yet to do.

In his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, King reminds us that “civilization and violence are antithetical concepts.” “Selma” reminds us that the margin between the two is so very thin. It reminds us that the ghosts of Selma still very much haunt the American consciousness. And, it reminds us that what was won at the Edmund Pettus Bridge can be lost, if we’re to forget. “Selma” is the nightmare whose ghosts won’t stop haunting us. And, deep inside, we know they never will.


rudnik-thumbnailNicholas A. Rudnik is currently pursuing a degree in political science with a concentration in American politics at Valdosta State University. Previously, he’s served as a congressional page in the U.S. House of Representatives during the 111th Congress and in the Office of U.S. Congressman Sanford Bishop. Further, Nick has served on staff at an institutional interest group, the Association of American Law Schools, in Washington and has worked in the private sector. He has presented his research, focused primarily on congressional parties and elections, at regional academic conferences and hopes to pursue a graduate degree in political science. Nick is currently completing two manuscripts relating to southern congressional elections and judicial decision-making in the area of campaign finance; he can be contacted via e-mail at Follow Nick on Twitter: @NickRudnik.

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3 Comments on "Rudnik > The Ghosts of “Selma”"

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  1. Jan says:

    Wow! Great article for a great Movie!!! The movie made me cry and this almost did also! What a writer….

  2. Ty says:

    Brah, look around Valdosta. Racism didn’t end in 1960. Not in LOWNDES, GA.

  3. James says:

    Did you even read this article Ty? If so at least re-read the last two paragraphs brah.