‘Selma’ and Ferguson, MO: A Movie About 1964 That is About Today; This Day
After the New York City premiere of ‘Selma’—the new Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic that details his time during the Selma, Alabama civil-rights marches—the film’s cinematographer, Bradford Young, speaking to the audience after, made a reference to this film being about today as much as it’s about 1964. While doing so, Young evoked images we all saw out of Ferguson, Missouri this past August. He then spoke emotionally about his job and his life and his family:
This is all I have. As a young black man, and as a black man with a family, this is how I keep myself from going to jail. I’m not going to let them undermine this. Every bit of energy I put into this is so we can collectively not be undermined. I know that seems utopian in the sense that this is just a movie, but for a lot of us who have been continuously shut out of it, and for me in particular as a cinematographer of color—I don’t see myself.
They can intrude in my house. They can make me wonder in fear the fate and destiny of my son, who is a 15-month-old black boy and it’s real for my wife and I. That’s something we talk about everyday. They can come in my house in many different ways. They can come in my space in different ways, but I refuse to let them come into this space. Because this is what makes me a good husband. This is what makes me a good father. This is what makes me good brother. A good collaborator.
When Young said these words, Ferguson was already starting to feel like a distant memory; August is a lifetime ago in the modern media cycle. I thought what Young said was poignant, but, in regards specifically to Ferguson, I still had a naïve belief that justice would be served. Like everyone else, I don't know what happened the day that Michael Brown was shot and killed, other than Brown was unarmed and he was shot many, many times. I believed that there would be a trial to at least hear both sides of this case. I was wrong.
‘Selma’ is the story of the civil rights marches from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama in support of voting rights for African Americans— rights that they technically already had, but were being denied to them through ridiculous loopholes. It’s easy to draw a parallel between the marches in Selma and the earlier marches in Ferguson—large groups of people demonstrating against a civil injustice—but the greater comparison is what we saw happen last night with St. Louis county prosecutor Bob McCulloch, presiding over a system that was rigged from the beginning.
During an early scene in ‘Selma,’ Oprah Winfrey appears as Annie Lee Cooper, a woman who is trying to register to vote—her legal right to do—in Selma, Alabama. The system is rigged. She’s first asked to recite the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, which she does. She’s then asked how many county judges are in the state of Alabama, which she answers. She’s then asked to name every single one of them.
Incidents like this brought Martin Luther King, Jr. to Selma, one of the most racially charged areas of the United States in 1964. While watching, a viewer—let’s be honest here: a white viewer, me—might at least try to take solace in the fact that these events took place 50 years ago. That this really couldn’t happen today. Naïve.
As FiveThirtyEight points out, what we saw with last night’s grand jury decision in St. Louis County was very rare. If the prosecutor in a case wants an indictment, he or she can get an indictment. From their post, “According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.”
What county prosecutor Bob McCulloch did was basically try the entire case himself in front of the grand jury, with his team serving as Officer Darren Wilson’s defense team, arguing against nobody. As he explained the case on Monday night, it’s obvious there are still so many unanswered questions, which is why a case like this would usually go to trial. But the system was rigged. I’m not saying Officer Darren Wilson is guilty, but now there’s a good chance we’ll never know whether he was or not. And this all happened in 2014.
I was born in Creve Coeur, Missouri, 11 miles from Ferguson, but it might as well be light-years away. There’s a street in St. Louis called Delmar Boulevard that you may have heard of over the last few months. It’s the “dividing line” between the wealthy and impoverished neighborhoods in St. Louis. It’s considered the most divisive “dividing line” in the United States and it really does cut the city in half. It’s one of those things that seems depressingly “normal” when you live in St. Louis and exceedingly horrifying when viewed at a distance. My point is, St. Louis and St. Louis County are very flawed communities. They might be one of the most flawed communities in the United States. It’s still “where I’m from” and it brings me to tears to watch what’s happening.
I see Facebook updates from well-meaning people in St. Louis who don’t quite realize the context of what they’re saying. The most popular one is some iteration of “what you see on TV isn’t how I’ve experienced St. Louis.” Well, yeah, you’re white. We know. That’s usually followed by, “Please don’t think it’s like this.” And, yes, we already know that in your neighborhood it’s not like “that.”
I hope we see a lot of Bradford Young and the director of ‘Selma,' Ava DuVernay, over the next few months and, well, for many months and years after that. They can both be very important figures as we try to figure all of this out. But in making a movie about Martin Luther King, Jr., they made a movie about today. Literally today. This day. And maybe it’s time to stop trying to convince people “it’s not like this” when it’s so obvious that it is.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.