Oscars, Selma and Signs of the Times
by Jennifer Carpenter
These words from Rev. Dr. Alyn E. Waller resonated through my bones and prepared them to march on Martin Luther King Jr. day in Philadelphia last month. I marched with many different groups of people who want to see racism (particularly from those in power) cease, who want to see education supported and fully funded, and who want to see hourly workers paid a living wage. We marched in silence, we marched in song, we marched in shouts, and we marched in strength. One of the largest MLK demonstrations in the nation, it was an experience that both invigorate and perplexed me.
It was invigorating, because it was a moment in stability and harmony—where both protestors and police peacefully did what they are supposed to do, and did it well—at a time when instability and unrest plague our cities. Although some protestors wanted to rage against the police force, many more walked up to the officers and thanked them for their peaceful help throughout the march. It was invigorating and even cinematic as so many joined together in courageous songs and rhythmic steps. It was invigorating, because it brought a moment of comfort to mothers who have lost their sons, to educators who have lost their jobs, and to workers who have lost their hope.
I saw Selma that evening, after the march, and I felt as if I were watching a video of the morning's protest. Almost the same demands were depicted by protestors in the film; their signs bore nearly the same words as mine had earlier that day. This was the perplexing part. I was perplexed because I have the privilege to be perplexed by this. I was perplexed because we were marching for the same things people have been marching for during the more than 50 years since the civil rights movement took place: a living wage, an end to police brutality, the right to have one's vote matter, the right to good public education.
It may sound trivial to talk about this here, but a group of people who have a median age of 62 and are 94% white and 77% male left David Oyelowo (who plays MLK, Jr. in Selma) out of the nominations for best actor. Oyelowo was quoted saying: "We, as black people have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings or being at the center of our own narrative." While Oyelowo was speaking of black people (namely black males), this quote applies to anyone in the world of entertainment who has not held positions of power. And, of course, as we see when we look around the world today, this quote doesn't apply only to the world of entertainment.
As John Legend and Lonnie Lynn performed and received an award for their song "Glory" from Selma, a palpable feeling arose of an "almost" win. As tears rolled down the faces of the Selma cast members, Legend and Lynn each used their moment to touch on issues of injustice. The most profound statement for me was when their acknowledgement that Selma isn't a story from the past. "Selma" is now. As Lynn said, while the bridge in Selma became a symbol of worlds coming together, it seems we are still on the bridge, 50 years later, waiting to cross over.
Today, and every day, what steps are we willing to take to continue to march over this bridge, regardless of the cost, in order for us all to reach "glory"?
Jennifer Carpenter is a construction site of grace, Palmer Theological seminary student, Sider Scholar, musician, baker, solution-seeker, and investigator of good stories. She sporadically tweets @jcsongwriter.
Also of interest:
How much does a Hollywood Oscar campaign cost? by Stephen Follows
The Diversity Gap in the Academy Awards, an infographic
"Is this why 'Selma' was snubbed?" by Gene Seymour (CNN)