John Lewis and The Americans of Selma

By  · Published on January 16th, 2017

Watching movies in the shadow of President-elect Trump.

The man in the picture is on his knees. His back is arched painfully as if refusing to concede to gravity, his tan trench coat crumpling alongside the lines of his body, his one arm bent away from the attack while the other ‐ elbow jaggedly aimed at the ground ‐ protects the back of his head. Standing over him is a white-helmeted thug, half-squatting in anticipation of delivering another blow with its nightstick. In the background: a mob of uniforms, frantic for the hunt.

What’s most amazing about the image is not the violence itself, but that John Lewis, the young man awaiting another beating, walked with open eyes into the expectation of violence on March 7, 1965 after being beaten before. What steel-blooded courage that must take. What capacity for righteousness. What audacious hope.

For the crime of walking across a bridge in broad daylight, the police beat Lewis so severely that they fractured his skull. He thought he was going to die.

Instead, John Lewis rose from the bloody asphalt of Selma to the United States House of Representatives. He is a living artifact ‐ a witness participant at the epicenter of the large-scale change in this country whose size has been called into question by the last Presidential election. How far have we come. How far do we have to go. He marched alongside Reverend Hosea Williams and hundreds of others that day to secure a voice in America, and it took the destruction and near-destruction of their bodies to get it.

L to R: Wendell Pierce as Rev. Hosea Williams and Stephan James as John Lewis in “Selma”

Ava DuVernay’s Selma captures the movement’s brutal chess match of ideals by echoing and amplifying that voice, from the KKK church-bombing murder of four young black girls ‐ Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair ‐ straight through to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

This is the same KKK that gleefully endorses Donald Trump. This is the same Voting Rights Act now gutted by the Supreme Court, a body whose main reason for neutering the Act’s ability to protect black voters in the South was, essentially, that racism is over.

The movie, alarmingly fresh in 2014, is now even more urgent in its portrayal of half-century-old events. At the time, the movie was a revelation because of DuVernay’s expert direction. Like a ballet dancer wielding a brick with a ransom note written on it, she navigated raw nerve-endings and chest-thumping emotions with the lightest touch still able to cause a concussion.

As shot by Bradford Young, the two bridge scenes are especially striking, evoking equal yet opposing emotions of despair and triumph. The savage cruelty of the first march transformed into the police’s glowering impotence. The solemn line on a wide, empty bridge transformed into thousands of bodies eclipsing the structure from railing to railing. The noble, defeated action transformed into an unstoppable force.

Read More: Our Manchurian Candidate

Watching Selma now, it reads like a manual on how to resist the racist fascism of our incoming President. Take notes, people. This is how you build a gutsy machine that converts justified rage into results, and the guy who helped write the manual while sporting a handsome trench-coat-and-backpack combo is not only still alive, he’s representing.

His latest acts of good trouble are to denounce Donald Trump’s Presidency as illegitimate (shot) and to not attend the inauguration (chaser).

The rhetorical power of RSVPing “No” to the inauguration is at least three-fold. It hits Trump’s obsession with ratings right where it hurts by proclaiming to the nation that the event is easily skippable; and it twists the knife into an incoming president clouded by a relationship with Russia that’s as intimate as a urinary tract infection. It also subverts Trump’s own from-thin-air, purely racist screeds against Obama’s legitimacy ‐ the “He doesn’t look like me, so maybe he’s not from around here?” nonsense aggressively aimed at Obama without a single scrap of evidence.

That befuddled racism is given life by those who deny (or cannot even fathom) the core Americanness of Lewis, the Selma marchers, and other black citizens.

There are those Americans who bristle at the existence of other Americans who have darker skin, different religions, and different sexual orientations. Really any differences at all. Yet the actions of Representative Lewis (who Trump lashed out at in a fit of steroidal irony as being “all talk”) and Rosa Parks and DeRay Mckesson and James Baldwin and the man whose legacy we celebrated just this weekend are all George Washington-level American. Protesting with your mortality for equal rights and responsibilities? That’s the first strand of coding in our national DNA. Speaking up and putting their lives on the line for justice makes them patriots.

Yet this concept is anathema to a President-elect who believes all black people live in an inner city slum of their own making. He should watch Selma and learn a thing or two (like who Representative John Lewis is, for starters).

None of this happens in a vacuum. In fact, Selma and Selma are at the center of our current storm. Obama name-dropped it (and Stonewall) in his farewell speech. Its march ‐ as a reflection of the 1963 March on Washington ‐ is now reflected in a new form as the Women’s March planned for the day after the inauguration. Sadly, The Voting Rights Act born from the bloodshed of the Edmund Pettus Bridge is now the rubble over which Trump marched to become head honcho.

And like an explosion in an Alabama church, Dylann Storm Roof has just been sentenced to death for the 2015 killing of 9 black men and women ‐ Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson, and Clementa C. Pinckney ‐ at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in an openly admitted act of racist terrorism. In a vital piece, Bim Adewunmi puts Roof’s actions into its greater context as a symptom of our national cancer. She writes:

What will it mean when Dylann Roof dies by the state? Forget the possible martyrdom other white supremacists get to bestow on him ‐ what would it mean for America? Dylann Roof is an American problem. His death may seem akin to excising a tumour ‐ a clean and decisive move so the rest of the organism can thrive. But what if the whole damn body is riddled with disease? Cutting out the one part is not doing anything about the rest of the ailment. In the rush to call Dylann Roof every name under the sun (an evil monster in a borrowed human suit, essentially), there is a subtle rejection of the idea that he is more common than is comfortable to think about. To reiterate: Dylann Roof is not a Dylann Roof problem ‐ he’s an American problem. And to constantly reject this, to isolate him as a one-off ‐ until the next one-off, of course ‐ does us all a disservice.

Unsurprisingly, DuVernay keys into the historical spine in Selma as she does in her latest feature work, 13th, a documentary that draws a straight line from slavery to mass incarceration via 14 words in the Thirteenth Amendment which allow for servitude as a punishment for crime. American slavery and its progeny are 497- and 240- and 151- and 51 years old, and reborn anew every morning. In other words, an American problem.

President Obama’s re-election in 2012 proved that we were ready for a black president. Donald Trump’s election in 2016 proved that we weren’t. At least not completely.

The great myth of the Obama presidency is that ‐ by having one of something, a first of something ‐ we had banished all the ghosts of our hateful past to the dusty history books where they belong. DuVernay understands that we didn’t, and her work, particularly in Selma, helps wake up the post-racial, myth-struck to a violent, current truth.

He was at the front of line crossing the bridge over the Alabama River, so it’s fitting that Representative John Lewis ‐ civil rights icon, comic book author, and man of action ‐ show us the way to bend an arc of history that refuses to bend on its own.

Know of another movie we need to watch in the shadow of Trump? Let us know in the comments section or email [email protected] with the subject “Trump Movies.”

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.