If you're looking for a movie with real religion -- as well as historical context, emotional complexity, political savvy and inspiring humanity -- I have a recommendation.
Go see “Selma,” the Oscar-nominated film about the civil rights marches that brought voting rights to African-Americans in the South in the 1960s.
Like the best films about religion – “Dead Man Walking,” “Shadowlands,” “Of Gods and Men” – “Selma” centers on imperfect people struggling to walk the talk of faith.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (played superbly by British actor David Oyelowo) clearly shines as a leader with vision and moral courage. But gifted director Ava DuVernay also lets us see his behind-the-scene battles with doubt, indecision and the tension in his marriage to Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo, also British and also excellent).
Such burdens give rise to a private dream, voiced by King in the opening scene, of a life away from the limelight, as the pastor of a small church in a university town.
But this Baptist preacher, his wife and his lieutenants soldier on, looking to God in those moments of hopelessness, despair – and awe.
Feeling drained and discouraged one night, King calls and wakes up gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, telling her he needs to hear the voice of the Lord. Obligingly, and movingly in the film, she sings over the phone, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
Then later, after a helmeted Alabama state trooper shoots and kills Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young civil rights worker, we see King, tears brimming, try to console the martyr’s 82-year-old grandfather at the morgue. “God was the first to cry,” King tells the grieving old man, “the first to cry for your boy.”
“Selma” will make you tear up, for sure. With sadness at the evil humans are capable of, but also with joy at the faith-based solidarity so many display.
Take the scene where we see the result of King's call for reinforcements for the 54-mile march to Montgomery. Many thousands from around the country drive and fly to Selma, including Jewish rabbis, Catholic nuns, a Greek Orthodox archbishop and the Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston who was to be murdered by racist thugs.
Biblical epics and churchy dramas are fine. But for those clamoring for movies that convey the positive power of religion, I say: Go see “Selma.”
Two of the many Charlotte events marking Dr. King’s upcoming holiday testify to the religious roots of the civil rights movement:
- The Rev. Clark Olsen will speak Sunday (Jan. 18), 9:15 a.m. and 11:15 a.m., at Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte, 234 North Sharon Amity Road. Olsen was a young UU minister in March 1965 when he answered King’s call for clergy to come to Selma and march. And he was there when his friend, the Rev. Reeb, was beaten to death by a white mob.
- Former NAACP President Benjamin Jealous will be the keynoter at 8 a.m. Monday (Jan. 19) at the YMCA of Greater Charlotte’s 21st annual MLK Holiday Prayer Breakfast. More than 1,100 people are expected at the Charlotte Convention Center’s Crown Ballroom in uptown. Jealous plans to challenge the audience by asking: What is that one big thing you are going to change in your community before you die?