A Film Guide for MLK Celebration
Suitable for children, this TV film was a part of The Wonderful World of Disney series, first aired in 1999. The guide appeared in the March 2001 issue of VP, when we ran just one guide per issue.
- Charles Burnett
- Run Time
- 1 hour and 40 minutes
- Not Rated
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
Screenplay by Cynthia Whitcomb, based on the book by Sheyann Webb & Rachel West Nelson, told to Frank Sikora.
Cast & characters: Sheyann Webb – Jurnee Smollett; Rachel West – Stephanie Zandra Peyton; Martin Luther King, Jr. -Clifton Powell; Jonathan Daniels – Mackenzie Astin; Betty Webb – Ella Joyce; John Webb – Afemo Omilami; Miss Bright – Yolanda King; Sheriff Potts – Brett Rice
Themes: Civil Rights/Justice; Courage; Martyrdom
Scriptures: Isaiah 11:1-9; Amos 5:24; Luke 4:16-19
Although Selma and the famous Selma to Montgomery March led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Hosea Williams in 1965, will forever be associated with the vicious violence visited upon the marchers, the producers have managed to recreate the events leading up to the March with few scenes that overtly show the violence. The story is told through the eyes of the “almost twelve” girl Sheyann Webb, so that young viewers will find much to hold their interest. Like Shy, as she is called, many of them have been told, when they take an interest in such adult affairs as civil rights, “You’re too young to understand all this.” That’s what Shy’s parents tell her after she skips school to meet her just arrived in town hero Dr. King. Ironically they try to discourage her from taking part in the Freedom Meetings at Brown Chapel, whereas her next-door friend Rachel is reluctant to go to the Freedom meetings or to march, even though her parents are such enthusiastic supporters of the Movement that they open up their home to a young white seminarian Jonathan Daniels.
New Hampshiran Jonathan comes to town to answer the call for volunteers the same day that Shy meets Dr. King. Young and enthusiastic, Jonathan becomes a good friend to Shy and a faithful voter registration advocate. He also runs up against resistance from a fellow Anglican clergyman who tells him that outsiders like Jonathan do not understand the South and are merely stirring up trouble among “the colored” who do not really want to vote. At a Freedom meeting Jonathan is introduced to Jimmy Lee Jackson and Willie, both about his age but already veterans in the Movement. Because Jonathan has a car, an old VW Beetle, they accompany him to the countryside where the Northerner soon learns about the fear of powerless blacks and the intransigence of white segregationists. Indeed, even before this, Jonathan confronts this when he comes upon a group of hooded Klansmen setting fire to a cross on the lawn of Brown Chapel.
A delightful touch to the film is the presence of a daughter of Dr. King, Yolanda King, who portrays Miss Bright, the girls’ school teacher. She represents those blacks who had struggled to gain an education and thus rose to the top of black society. Like Miss Bright, many of them were reluctant to join the civil rights campaigns because they had so much to lose to vindictive segregationists who controlled everything in their communities, including the school boards. But, inspired by her young pupil, Miss Bright and her fellow teachers do decide to leave their safe classrooms and join the dangerous March, a decision that will cost most of them their jobs.
The rest of the ensemble cast is excellent: Jurnee Smollett (the talented young actress who played the lead in “Eve’s Bayou”) as Sheyann; Mackenzie Astin as the seminary student Jonathan Daniels; Clifton Powell as a more introspective Dr. MLK, Jr., than is usually shown; and Brett Rice, who portrays Sheriff Pots, despite the actor’s own convictions.
As with all teleplays, script writer Cynthia Whitcomb, who based her work on the book written by the two girls, now grown to adulthood, simplifies history and condenses many of the historical characters for the sake of producing a comprehensible drama. She retains, however, the essence of the times, as I can testify, having participated myself for a brief summer in voter registration work in Mississippi. The feeling of terror experienced by all participants, especially that of black workers living in the countryside where they were so vulnerable to the threats of the KKK, is well conveyed. But so is the courage of those who overcame their fears and decided that change was long overdue and would never come unless they “put on their marching shoes.”
That the Movement was a singing one is wonderfully shown, numerous songs such as “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round,” “O Freedom,” “This Little Light of Mine” and others sung at gatherings and in the streets of Selma as the people march.
I have already mentioned that Dr. King is shown as a more introspective person than his fiery public image would suggest. Several times he is shown warning his co-leaders that they are up against a far greater and more entrenched evil system than they realize. He worries about the effect upon those whom they are calling to undertake such great risks to their families, their careers, and even their lives. His insistence upon the importance of non-violence is emphasized, not only in the brief snatches of his sermons that we hear, but also in a debate about tactics and the role of God between Jonathan and Willie.
I felt anew the thrill of watching again President Lyndon Johnson’s famous televised speech in which he affirmed that the might of the federal government at last would come down on the side of the marchers and their goal of a voting rights act. That the terrorists in the Klan meant business is depicted in the two murders, only one of which takes place on screen. Thus the film is a good reminder that the progress that the Selma March won has been bought with blood, as has been the case in virtually all advances for freedom. “Selma Lord Selma” is good family entertainment, and a fitting tribute to those who risked so much for the better world that Dr. King was eventually to die for.
Some of the questions have been set at a level appropriate for an intergenerational group. Those leading an adult or youth group in discussing the film can rephrase or skip many of these .
- Share what you know about segregation or “Jim Crow.” At the beginning of the movie what signs of it do you see? And they are “signs”–at drinking fountains and on restaurants. Why did people put up such signs? Why did they not like African-Americans? Was it only in the South that people believed this? How was it different in the North, and yet blacks people still had a difficult time?
- Why would Cheyann know so much about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? How is he important to all Americans, not just African-Americans?
- What was the girls’ reaction to Jonathan Daniels when they met him? Why? How did most white people whom the girls might know feel about segregation and equal rights for all? Remember the white minister that Jonathan meets (as well as the girl who introduces them)? Where was Jonathan from? If you look carefully, you will see in the marches other white people also: why do you think they came to Selma?
- Why does Rachel, and then their teacher Miss Bright, think Cheyann was wrong to go to the meeting to meet Dr. King? Why did Shy do it? What would you have done?
- Why were the girls afraid when they met the sheriff on their way to the church that night? What do you know about the “four little girls in Birmingham” that he mentioned? What was he trying to do Fear is important in the story: what signs of it do you see? What do you think of burning a cross to scare people? How do Shy and Rachel deal with their fear? What kinds of things have caused you fear–and how did you deal with them? If there is time, group members might divide up the Psalms and see how many of them deal with fear–especially Ps. 27. Or check out the word in a Bible concordance to see how often people in the New Testament are told to “fear not.”
- What were the words to the song that Shy sang? One of the fun things at the freedom meetings was to make up your own words for a new verse: did Shy do this? You might try it and make up a verse for your own town or church. What other songs did you hear? Why do you think singing was so important to the people in the civil rights movement?
- After the freedom meeting we see the first of several discussions between Dr. King and the other black leaders of Selma. How is this picture of Dr. King different from the usual one suggested by his stirring speeches? What does Dr. King know about the opponents of integration that his colleagues don’t? After the marchers are arrested, and Jonathan tells Dr. King that he was never treated this way before, what does Dr. King’s reply reveal about his experience?
- Sheyann’s father and her teacher Miss Bright represent a lot of older African Americans during the Civil Rights era: why do you think they are afraid of joining the march? What do they have to lose? What finally convinces them that the gains are worth the risk?
- Several scenes and conversations between the characters are worth discussing:
– The drinking water scene when the angry white office worker knocks the cup out of Shy’s hand.
– Dr. King speaking at Jimmy Lee Jackson’s funeral, followed by the scene in the study when he tells Shy it would be hard for him to keep his faith if his daughter had been killed.
– Willy and Jonathan talking about Jimmy Lee’s murder, and Willy saying that people are changing their minds about non-violence. What is Jonathan’s reply?
– Betty Webb talks with her daughter about her fear that if they get away with killing Jimmy Lee Jackson, they could shoot anybody. What would you say to Shy’s reply, But how are we going to get our freedom if everybody is careful?”
- How did you feel when the marchers were attacked on the bridge? How did the music contribute to this? What do you think it is inside people that they would treat unarmed people so viciously? How is this scene like the Crucifixion on Good Friday?
- How do we see the power of music in the church where the marchers have gathered to lick their wounds?
- How did you feel during President Johnson’s televised speech? How are his following words still needed for Americans today? “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is only an American problem!”
- Were you prepared for Jonathan’s death? What effects does this have on the people, and Shy in particular? How do others come to her aid? How might this have influenced her father? What do you think of his birthday gift to her?
- What have you learned from this film about freedom and courage? How is the last song both appropriate–and ironic? “Free at Last, Free at Last, Thank God”?