I wish the film Selma was around when I was in middle school. I was terrible at history. All of those dates and names and political intrigues would have been so much easier to grasp if it was told to me in one linear narrative, like a film. I can remember some of what I read in seventh grade, a bit about a lesson or two, but most of what I remember I got from Schoolhouse Rock and Roots.
tAnd while kids can certainly learn in class, there are subjects like racism, equality and fighting unfair laws that might be too taboo or too uncomfortable for teachers to address in a classroom environment. Subjects that are central themes in Selma and great discussion starters for class the next day.
t Last week New York City school kids were offered the opportunity to see the movie Selma for free just by going to any Regal Cinema across the five boroughs with a valid student ID or report card. This program was funded by Paramount Pictures and 27 African-American business leaders.
t The following week Darden Restaurants’ CEO Clarence Otis and former Orlando Magic player Grant Hill put their money where our history is, and also created a fund to get 10,000 Orlando students into theaters to see Selma for free.
t Now dozens of cities across the country are following this initiative and donating generously so that their children might also have the same opportunity. The program is for seventh, eighth and ninth graders who will be able to learn about one of the most important social leaders in American history, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but also how deep the roots of racial inequality run in our culture.
t Issues surrounding racism could get ignored at home. Parents opting for a “we don’t see color” approach may send their children the wrong message, especially those who grow up in an ethnic bubble. Meaning, even if you’re living in a city with racial diversity, ethnic groups will tend to stick together. Selma forces its viewer to confront American racism and acknowledge that staying in a bubble is dangerous.
t As a grad student I taught a racial identity class to undergraduates at Fordham University. White identity was always about getting in touch with your own racism, but also about accepting and changing how you may have participated in hurting others, even unknowingly. I thought about that while sitting in the theater and wondered what Selma director Ava DuVernay would say on the subject.
t When I think back to the lessons I learned as a kid that were the most indelible, those were the ones that had an emotional component to them. For many kids it’s easier to connect with an emotion than it is to connect with an intellectual concept. Case in point, if I stood in a classroom and tried to explain how American citizens “had to protest” to exercise their constitutional right to vote, or what segregation may have felt like, it would not be as meaningful as watching scenes in Selma where you see what these protests actually were: Alabama state troopers armed with clubs, cattle prods and tear gas, attacking civil rights demonstrators. A teacher could explain the Voting Rights Act, but that would pale in comparison to watching Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper being asked questions too impossible to answer in order to deter her from voting.
t Selma is not merely a flag waving opportunity. For a young audience it is a chance to see students, not unlike themselves, fight alongside Dr. King and participate in giving African-Americans a voice in the political system.
t The film is PG-13, and there is some violence but it is not gratuitous, nor is it gory. It is mostly heard and imagined, yet it confronts the way violence was inflicted on these Americans who only wanted their basic rights as American citizens. There is no question the educational value outweighs any concern parents or teachers might have.
t And finally, if you want to understand the power of watching something rather than having it described to you, look no further than the most pivotal scenes in Selma. The main catalyst in creating a movement for all Americans and not just blacks are the scenes where we see whites, and clergy, watching the horrendous violence on television; scenes out of nightmares forcing white America to react and become galvanized by their outrage causing them to join Dr. King in droves.
tImage: Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures