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NPR Arts & Life

'Selma' Tells The Civil Rights Story Through Black Eyes

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The civil rights drama "Selma" hit theaters on Christmas day. Director Ava DuVernay's film follows the 1965 voting rights march from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery. Of course this is not the first film to depict the Civil Rights Movement. But as Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's Code Switch team reports, this one is told from a different perspective. And a warning - this story contains strong language.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: There have been civil rights movies from major studios before, but those have focused on the movement through the prism of white characters. Here's Gene Hackman as an FBI agent interrogating hostile locals as he tries to discover who murdered three abducted civil rights workers in "Mississippi Burning."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MISSISSIPPI BURNING")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Unidentified Ku Klux Klan Member) Well, if that's how you feel about it, Mr. FBI man. Why don't you drink up that beer and get the hell on out of here and back to your commie, nigger-loving bosses up North?

GENE HACKMAN: (As Rupert Anderson) You must not know my boss - Mr. Hoover. He's not too fond of commies. He'd be on your side there.

GRIGSBY BATES: The film angered a lot of black moviegoers because it made the FBI heroes when, says civil rights activist Charles Cobb, in the early '60s, the bureau often looked the other way as black Southerners were beaten and murdered.

CHARLES COBB: The position of the federal government at that point was that it couldn't interfere with local affairs - that the FBI was purely an investigative organization. It was not the business of the FBI or the federal government to protect the people from local violence. That was their official position.

GRIGSBY BATES: Cobb spent five years in Mississippi as an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. He says Hollywood often gets civil rights wrong because it doesn't have many people who know the movement well enough to make it accurate or believable. That's why he was gratified to learn that some of the less nationally well-known characters involved in Selma were getting their due in this film, like the Southern Christian Leadership Conferences' James Bevel, played by rapper, Common. Bevel advised King to go forward with the big march for voters' rights.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SELMA")

COMMON: (As James Bevel) Selma's the place, and they're ready.

COBB: He was the preeminent organizer in SCLC. So you can't possibly talk about Selma without really talking a lot about Bevel.

GRIGSBY BATES: Again, Charles Cobb.

COBB: So just to hear that he's in the film prominently I find encouraging and also unusual, I must say, because Hollywood usually tries to ignore these kinds of people.

GRIGSBY BATES: Reviewers say director Ava DuVernay has also done something previous films featuring Martin Luther King haven't managed. She's made him human, but also part of something larger than himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SELMA")

DAVID OYELOWO: (As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) It is unacceptable that they use their power to keep us voiceless.

(APPLAUSE)

OYELOWO: (As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) Those that have gone before us say no more.

GRIGSBY BATES: Another way DuVernay has parted from her predecessors...

WESLEY MORRIS: The idea of this movie sort of taking into account an entire moment in American history, as opposed to a person, is really important.

GRIGSBY BATES: Wesley Morris is a cultural critic for Grantland, the ESPN spinoff blog devoted to sports and pop culture. He believes there's an obvious reason "Selma" feels so right.

MORRIS: I find that that it is usually what happens when a black director tells a story about black people.

BONNIE BOSWELL: Civil rights has been racialized in terms of the public consciousness about it.

GRIGSBY BATES: Bonnie Boswell is a journalist turned director. She created a documentary on her uncle, Whitney Young, one of King's colleagues, for PBS last year. Boswell says these kinds of stories about her uncle's work with the Urban League, about the Selma push for voter registration, deserve better than to be pigeonholed by race.

BOSWELL: When we look at these stories, we tend to label them according to the color of the people who participated, and therefore we miss out on a broader perspective.

GRIGSBY BATES: Stories like "Selma" are good American stories which, Boswell says, make the country's history deeper and richer for all its citizens. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.