Langston Hughes Center Present: SELMA Panel Discussion

[by Meredith Wiggins]

KU’s Langston Hughes Center sponsored a screening of recent Best Picture nominee Selma followed by a panel discussion about the film and its resonances to current-day issues on Wednesday, March 25.  More than 200 students, faculty, and community members attended the screening in Wescoe Hall.

Selma depicts the 1965 civil rights marches from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital of Montgomery, and Dr. Shawn Alexander, an associate professor in the Department of African and African-American Studies and director of the LHC, noted that he picked March 25 for the screening because that was the date when marchers actually arrived in Montgomery.

After the screening, a panelist of three scholars from KU–independent filmmaker and professor of film and media studies Kevin Willmott, assistant professor of American studies Elizabeth Esch, and African and African American studies graduate student Melissa Foree–responded to the film and engaged audience questions about the continued relevance of civil rights work today.

Foree spoke first, discussing how the film draws attention to aspects of the Civil Rights Movement frequently overlooked in history books, like the incredible violence the protesters faced from police and white citizens and the decades of local organizing that preceded the events of the film.  Foree drew specific parallels with issues of social justice today, particularly the 2013 Supreme Court decision about the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that allowed states to change their voting laws without requiring federal oversight.

Esch focused on providing additional historical context for the film, emphasizing that it took place a full decade after many “wins” of the CRM–a decision which speaks to the hollowness of many whites’ advice that civil rights progress was inevitable but would “just take time.”  Selma points instead to a line-in-the-sand moment, when sides had to be taken, Esch said.

Willmott closed out the panelists’ remarks by discussing the way Selma was constructed by filmmakers. American audiences are so used to the sight of violence, Willmott said, that it is hard to shock them; shooting the violence in beautiful, balletic slow-motion acts to set it off from the rest of the film’s straightforwardly realistic style and fully engage audiences.  Similarly, portraying Martin Luther King, Jr.’s extramarital affairs brings the actions of a man sometimes thought of as “of somewhere else, not of us” back to a human level.

A number of the audience questions focused on how Selma speaks to continuing issues of social justice.  One audience member asked about the likelihood of a new CRM and the new challenges such a movement would face.  Willmott said that the challenge of such a movement would be to create an organizational structure that repeats and replaces itself, saying that he “doesn’t quite see” movements like Black Lives Matter reaching that level yet.  (At least one audience member clearly disagreed, audibly asserting, “It is.  It is.”)

Foree said that today’s more sophisticated surveillance technology and a prevalent though inaccurate belief in a post-racial climate are new challenges that must be engaged by any civil rights work undertaken today.  What were once very obvious techniques of intimidation and oppression, Willmott added, now have to be found out and identified in more subtle ways.

“I almost wish it were segregated again for a week,” Willmott said, so that these issues could be crystallized for the public.