Selma defines an American era

“Selma offers a window, but not a blueprint,” says Décoste (Photo: Danielle Cameron)

“Movies are one of the prime ways that people learn history and, you know, having a black woman director make a film about Martin Luther King – the point of view is very important,” says Ron Foley MacDonald, a senior programmer at the Atlantic Film Festival.

The Halifax Central Library screened the 2014 film Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay last Tuesday, in honour of African Heritage Month.

“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle,” Martin Luther King said in 1963.

The American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was pivotal in North American history. But, in an era where multimedia and cinema have become the history teachers, context has become increasingly important.

“The way that she sees the subject is particularly her – but particular to gender, race and class,” MacDonald added.

A film curator and producer, as well as programmer, MacDonald says the view DuVernay showcased was much more interesting and moderated than the traditional representations of what we see of the King and his life.

Where the film was screened as a way of raising awareness of black history, there are those that believe this sentiment should be more than a seasonal effort.

“I always have a concern when there is only an interest in such content during African Heritage Month,” says Wanda Thomas Bernard, a Dalhousie University professor and chair of the Nova

Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women.

“Black lives matter all year long and there is such a gap in mainstream knowledge of and interest in African Canadian history. It is time for that to change.”

This Canadian account is often absent in mainstream film. “I would rather see a movie detailing how Canada went from segregated school to integrated institutions,” Rachel Décoste, masters of public administration candidate at George Washington University, says over email.

“I would rather see a move detailing how Ontario became the first province to instate a law against racism,” she added. “History can tell us what mistakes we’ve made in the past. Knowledge of history can help decipher current trends that mimic those of yesteryear, and, with an eye on improvement, ameliorate the current outcomes.”

As polite and progressive as Canada is assumed to be, there is room for improvement.

“I was recently thinking about our new federal government and how diverse the Trudeau Cabinet is – it is exciting to see 50 per cent women, and so much diversity reflected in this first cabinet, and yet, I am conscious of the fact that none of them are of African descent,” says Bernard. “What message does this send to African Canadians?”

People everywhere are still seeking out equality and justice and remain inspired by King’s tactics, organization and determination.

“Americans did it the way that worked for them. We in Canada need to figure out how to make it work in the context of our country. In that lens, Selma offers a window, but not a blueprint for justice-seeking Canadians,” Décoste says.