I recently re-watched Selma, the movie about the Civil Rights Marches in Selma, Alabama led by Martin Luther King, Jr. I really, really love this movie. Watching it again, I couldn’t help but notice some powerful dynamics in how faith is represented in the film.
It was directed by Ava Duvernay, who, with this movie, became the first black female director to ever be nominated for an Academy Award. I don’t like artist analysis in approaching a work, as I think a piece of art should stand on its own regardless of its creator. But at times, after the fact, it can illuminate some aspects. And indeed, in looking into Duvernay’s background, I found that she is a very helpful symbol for the spiritual place many in our society find themselves.
She grew up in Compton, in the midst of many of the structural, generational, and long-standing effects of political and economic segregation, disempowerment, and white privilege. She went to an all-girls Catholic high school where, no doubt, she received a very robust religious education.
And yet, now, as she made this film about a man whose legacy is built on acts flowing from his religious convictions, when Rolling Stone asked her, “Are you religious yourself?”, she responded with, “No, not religious. But I love God.”
This, I think, captures well the dynamic of a film like Selma in our day-and-age, when it comes to the relationship between faith and culture. Let me be clear: the film is not in the least hostile to faith. This is not some Christian cultural martyrdom post. The film powerfully depicts the religious tenor and foundation of King’s movement.
In times of despair and weakness, he calls the famous gospel singer Mahalia Jackson to sing him a hymn. Encouragement for the people throughout the film is found in Scripture and hymns. The command-and-control center for operations in Selma is a church, at which King speaks powerfully in his calls to actions.
(On a side note, one of the most convicting lines was in one of the church scenes. After one of the movement members I killed, at his funeral King goes through a list of those ultimately responsible for this death. As part of this litany akin to Jesus’ “hypocrites” screed in Matthew, he says this was also the fault of “every white preacher who preaches the Bible and stays silent before his white congregation” about civil rights. This struck me so deeply, I’m afraid how I might overcompensate in my next sermon.)
One of the most powerful depictions of faith was during the “Bloody Sunday” attacks in Selma. During the beating of blacks on the Selma bridge, the soundtrack is Martha Bass’ “Walk With Me”, which is a plea for God to walk with his people through “this tedious journey”. It’s especially striking as these people are marching, walking for their dignity and rights, to hear a cry for Jesus to “walk” with them. It turns this protest and resistance into a type of sacrament whereby Jesus is present. He walks with us and we with him as we march against and endure injustice and violence for the sake of righteousness.
Another beautiful Christian moment is when Coretta Scott King talks about how she feel ill-prepared to be a leader of the Civil Rights Movement and another sister encourages her that they come from a “mighty people” who have given the world civilization and culture, who survived slavery and Reconstruction. Therefore, she says, her ancestors have prepared Coretta for this moment on her behalf years before she ever arrived in this moment. Her lineage and community offer her the strength and life she needs for her task in this world. That is such a strong corrective for the individualism that plagues the white church and those in power today.
As a commentary on contemporary engagements between faith and culture, however, this film is especially relevant.
It seems we have reached a place in our American culture, where Christian faith of this kind is “exotic” and “minority” enough to be depicted as noble. There was no sense in which it was seen as the “enemy” here. Yes, there were several scenes which explained non-violence as a tactic rather than a principle rooted in pragmatism and reason, and not simply religion and faith; but overall, King’s faith was treated as a good, though ultimately incidental aspect of his political philosophy.
Faith was treated as the reality in which King and the black community incidentally found themselves–not a necessary ingredient of their acts for justice. It was merely a historical truth that Blacks found strength in Christian community and that this was the language in which the Civil Rights Movement was dressed, but indeed, it could have been any overarching, all-encompassing worldview/culture—it just happened to be Christianity.
I see this as a good and bad thing. The good is that Christian faith is not seen as a cultural evil that must be countered, diminished, and “shown for what it really is”.
The bad is twofold. First, it shows that Christianity has lost so much cultural capital that it can treated as a good without this treatment being criticized for pandering to Evangelicals. Of all the criticisms this film received, that was not one of them.
Secondly, it represents the forceful relegation of faith by the broader culture to those places it has pre-ordained. Faith is acceptable and worthy of broader approval only in those aspects that pursue the same general (philosophically liberal) goals as progressive society. When Christians fight for justice and equality in those areas that most Americans already believe in, it is all well and fine. And yet, when Christians aim to have distinctive views that are counter-cultural, these will not be treated with the same even-handedness and clarity as Duvernay’s work has beautifully, powerfully, and skillfully done.
The movie is a triumph on nearly every cultural, aesthetic, and cinematic level. (It’s a shame it didn’t receive more accolades.) Even more so, it is an excellent depiction of “post-Christian” views of faith from those that have known the contemporary American Church, and have found it lacking.
[image credit: photo from Resource Magazine Online]