What Selma Got Right

Janet Vertesi
Feb 21, 2015 · 8 min read

I was in college when Elizabeth came out, and I remember sitting in the theater, transfixed. As a historian-in-training at the time, I knew there was disputed evidence over Elizabeth I’s virginity and possible affairs. But this was the first movie I saw that used the medium of film to depart from the historical record and advance an extraordinary thesis. The thesis was that Elizabeth appropriated the powerful image of the Virgin Mary to establish herself as a virgin queen in order to enhance her power as both a female head of state and head of the church, to avoid a marriage that would deny her that power, and to appeal to a divided public during a period of religious strife in her country. It was also a thesis that could only be advanced through film, not by History-with-a-capital-H: a discipline which relies on texts, letters and official documents that we know exclude the experiences of women, minorities or the poor. The movie was brilliant, original, thought-provoking — and panned by historians.

I want to use this vignette to explore what I found so powerful about Selma, the movie which has also generated a contentious discussion in the press this Oscar season. The film has been decried for being historically inaccurate in its depiction of LBJ’s role in the civil rights movement (and other details); it has also been lauded for, among other things, exploring an important historical moment from an African-American perspective. This may be the historian’s perspective. I’d like to offer another: the sociologist’s.

From the sociological perspective, Selma gets it right. The film is, hands down, the most sophisticated exploration of social movements and the problem of social change that I have ever seen.

Sociologists frequently discuss the problem of social change: with all these structures in place in society, where does change come from, and how does it come about? This is why an entire sub-discipline is devoted to the study of social movements, looking at activist organizations, protests, and local civic organizing on the ground. Whether looking at AIDS patients or the Arab Spring, studying social movements gives us a sense of what it takes to produce change in society as a whole. It is also a great place for organizational sociologists (like myself) to witness how people organize themselves and make decisions, and how these ad-hoc communities intersect with traditional institutions like schools and governments.

One of my favorite studies, which actually focuses on the civil rights movement, is the outstanding Freedom is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements by Francesca Polletta, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine. Polletta describes the very many and disparate communities that came together (and apart) around the issue of civil rights. She also describes how they made decisions: and each community did it differently. And there were plenty of decisions to be made. After all, with so many pressing and oppressing problems do choose from, which do we tackle first? What are our methods: how do we go about bringing attention to this issue in the public sphere? And with so many other people addressing this issue at the same time, which groups do we ally ourselves with and which do we want to distance ourselves from?

This is exactly the issue I saw explored with such sophistication in Selma. In scene after scene, individuals confront the difficulty of decision-making in their community. Which issue do we tackle first, and how? Voting rights? Poverty? Bigoted officials? There is no consensus, and decisions are made with difficulty and an honest attempt to listen.

We see this first among MLK’s supporters, who are constantly debating among themselves about what to do, and when and how to do it. First they argue over where to take a stand; later in a hotel room in Selma they wonder which issues to promote at the march. Later still they argue in the empty pews following the funeral of the young man shot by police: do we march now, or later? Do we seize the moment and the momentum, or do we retreat? Is marching the right thing to do, or something else?

There is also no attempt to paint these different groups and their tactics as easily unified. When MLK’s group rolls into Selma, they confront a student organization that is devoted to “consciousness raising” and does not believe that the Reverend’s approach of marching is the right way to move forward. What follows is a rift between the leaders of the organization as they try to negotiate the demands of this powerful figure newly arrived in their town, and their own commitments in their communities. Director DuVernay might well have come fresh from reading Polletta’s book, or any recent study of activist groups for that matter. Thus, rather than painting Martin Luther King as a heroic figure who had all the answers and easily inspired a unified front, Selma explores the actual complications and fractures in any community of people who are unified in their belief in the importance of change.

The goal of showing this conflict is not to show that the movement is a failure: far from it. Instead, Selma argues that true social change requires mobilization on multiple fronts, at many levels, using different tactics, yet coordinated and unified in their goals.

This is beautifully shown in the scene where Malcolm X confronts Mrs. King and tells her that he is not there to upset her husband’s cause, but to support it. He offers to be “the bad guy” by demonstrating the kind of radical black activism that the government hates. He explains that he hopes this will force those people who can create change to support the Reverend with his peaceful methods. He reminds her that while they have different tactics, they both share the same goal — equality and the eradication of racial discrimination. To that end, this scene shows how these very different activist groups might work together: by pursuing the same interests with different yet complementary means.

Historians have pointed out that while we know Malcolm X met with Mrs King, there is no record of what was said between them. The conversation we see on film can only be fabricated: like many life stories of minorities, this moment is impossible to recover using the historian’s toolkit. However, the director uses this encounter between two historical figures to explore the film’s thesis about the tensions and relationships between different groups working to achieve social change. This puts the exchange, although fabricated, on solid sociological ground.

This is also evident in the scenes where King meets with President Johnson. Far from suggesting that Johnson does not support King, the movie shows that he is working with King to produce change. At the same time, as President and not the leader of an activist group, he is managing a different community with different aims — in this case, a House dominated by an opposition party — and therefore sees a way forward that requires different tactics. He is not against a right to vote bill, but hopes to make his way there in a piecemeal process by starting with a poverty bill and working up to the voting bill. In the scene where he finally explodes, “You have one issue, but I have a hundred and one!” this reminds the viewer that Johnson sits at the intersection of different forces and different communities who also disagree, and who require yet again different tactics in order to succeed.

Thus rather than painting President Johnson as a one-sided figure who only ever either hated MLK or loved him, or was for the movement or against it, the movie takes a more sophisticated middle ground. It uses the many confrontations — between King and Johnson, between King and Malcolm X, between King and the other members of his community, between his group and the student group, between King and Johnson’s emissary — to remind us that social change is not straightforward. After all, a successful social movement requires difficult yet constant decision-making, work across many scales of society with different associated problems and tensions, and using many, many tactics at once.

It also requires many people. Rather than dwell on King or Johnson as monumental figures, Selma shows how protest movements require many people, working in many positions, often behind the scenes. It shows Johnsons’ attachés, confidants, and opponents; King’s many friends and colleagues; the community of people in Selma who rally to the cause; and of course, the multi-racial and multiple religious groups who flock to Selma to march with them. Hence the scenes of white and black Americans, southerners and northerners, and clerics in different robes handing out supplies, caring for the wounded, and marching arm in arm.

Finally, social change is not easy. The movie shows this in spades, from LBJ’s pained decision to call in J Edgar Hoover (which we are led to believe invokes the FBI to “stir up trouble at home”) to the devastating deaths of young marchers, black and white alike. Scenes between King and his wife are especially powerful. Following the FBI-planted phone calls, she sighs, “I expected it to be hard, but I didn’t expect it to be this hard.” She didn’t expect death threats, threats to her family’s safety, or the concern that with each march, her husband might not come home. Knowing how the story ends, of course, gives these scenes a particular poignancy.

Thus Selma takes a historical moment with historical actors and brings it to life in a way that speaks powerfully to a central thesis: in this case, about the tensions inherent in the drive for social change. Like Elizabeth it is the epitome of historical fiction. This is a genre that we usually associate with pretty costumes and sets, imagined dramas, or the imperative to painting entirely within the lines of a historical text. However, the genre gains its true power by filling in the people, the emotions, the groups, and the complexity that we so rarely see, and by making the kind of point or thesis that can only be made in film.

And herein lies the essential sociological truth of Selma. Its power comes from showing the disunity, confusion, collusion and conflict that characterize all social movements and undergird all social change. The movie’s thesis is that effective social change requires movement on all fronts — top-down (from the President’s office) and bottom up (from an Alabama bridge), and many more besides. When the stakes are this high, it requires many different tactics and keeping many communities and their local interests in mind. It requires difficult decisions and managing lots of competing tensions. It is also never easy: but it can be done.

Selma’s message could not come soon enough. America is struggling to come to terms with Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and #Ferguson; the world is grappling with Tahrir, Zucotti, Gezi and Maidan. The issues that King, Johnson, and their respective entourages confront on screen speak to us with renewed urgency. In that sense, Selma speaks a powerful sociological truth, perhaps one that transcends the limits of history.

The Message

A Pandaemonium Revolver Collection. Season 2 stars @anildash @alanalevinson @ftrain @hipstercrite @itsthebrandi @jamielaurenkeiles @vijithassar @yungrama @zeynep. Season 1 available on DVD shortly.

    Janet Vertesi

    Written by

    Asst. Prof. of Sociology at Princeton University. Social aspects of science & technology; digital humanism; and robots in space.

    The Message

    A Pandaemonium Revolver Collection. Season 2 stars @anildash @alanalevinson @ftrain @hipstercrite @itsthebrandi @jamielaurenkeiles @vijithassar @yungrama @zeynep. Season 1 available on DVD shortly.

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