Three storytelling take-aways from Selma

Let’s ignore the fact that I saw the movie Selma with 60 6th graders who giggled inappropriately and got up incessantly and tossed a gummy bear into my lap. Let’s just talk about the phenomenal storytelling of the movie.

Because whatever else people might be saying about it, the storytelling was amazing.

still from the movie Selma

Here are three things I’m taking away for my own writing.

1. Every single person behaved like he or she was the star of his or her own drama.

It’s common writing advice to make sure that each character thinks he or she is the star, especially villains, who shouldn’t behave as if they are in the hero’s story. But it’s hard to do. And Ava DuVernay is a master at layering points of view.

Three specifics:

I loved how President Johnson was clearly respectful of Dr. King and of his purposes, and sympathetic, but he had his own list of priorities, and, if he had his way, civil rights was not high on it. His line late in the movie (paraphrased here) rang so true to what I imagine is an issue for every president: You’ve got one huge issue, I’ve got a hundred and one. It made me imagine being the president and having all these people with one big issue coming into your office all the time and having to negotiate and juggle and placate — all day long. It made the result of his conversation with the slimy George Wallace feel like such a hard-fought personal victory, and not just a victory for the movement and for the nation.

And it wasn’t like life within the Civil Rights movement was less complicated. There were so many layers of conflict in every interaction between “the adults” of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and “the kids” of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and between the two leaders of “the kids.” I confess that I fell a little in love with John Lewis as he was portrayed. SNCC was unhappy that, after two years of living among and working with the people of Selma, the SCLC was going to waltz in and take over and then leave all the people hanging when they decamped. King has a great little speech about how what SCLC does is very specific, and while it builds on SNCC’s work, it isn’t meant to be the same. The two leaders of SNCC, John Lewis and James Forman, argue repeatedly throughout the movie about tactics, about how they should involved themselves in the SCLC purpose, about John’s hero-worship of MLK. It costs Lewis his position with SNCC, and he gets brutally beaten by the state police, but he does get to deliver MLK’s own words back to him when he needs encouragement.

Even Coretta Scott King gets her own point of view. We see her struggle with being married to someone who’s gone so much. There’s a telling little moment when King takes the garbage out and doesn’t know where the roll of replacement garbage bags are kept. Scott King hands him the roll with only a little smirk. It was so subtle; it happens in the midst of a conversation. But it was a deep moment of showing that showed her isolation. We see her get nasty phone calls, at least some of which would’ve been planted by Hoover’s FBI in an attempt to weaken their marriage and thereby discredit King. We see a number of conversations between them, both tender and tough. She was her own person with her own take, and I was glad for it.

2. Showing vs. Telling.

This is an oft-repeated nugget of writing advice: don’t just tell the reader your character is happy/sad/frustrated/angry/etc. Show the reader.

This movie masters showing. I already mentioned one moment: the not knowing where the garbage bags are. Later, a ways into the movie, one of the SCLC leaders jokes about the jail cell being bugged, and other characters talk about their phones being bugged. But the audience knew that long before the character says it, because DuVernay superimposes lines from logged FBI reports that demonstrate how closely the FBI kept tabs on King — down to logging the fact that he’d called Mahalia Jackson late at night so she could sing “Precious Lord” to him to encourage him. The result is haunting and heavy for the viewer, much more so than merely hearing the characters talk about it would be.

3. Portrait of a Leader

This one will help my characterization of David as reluctant rebel on the run and then as king: the leader is almost never alone, and when he does manage to steal away, his thoughts are not pleasant (I use “he” because both King and David were male, not because I think all leaders must be male). While the movie isn’t about King, he’s often the focus. And he’s almost always in a group, if not a crowd, either of supporters or of opponents. The few times he’s alone, his thoughts are heavy. He thinks of the cost of his work, both in terms of his marriage and family life, and in terms of those who have lost their lives and those who will, because of what he’s leading them to do. He knows how difficult things are and also how much more difficult they will likely become.

I have to remember to portray the weight of being a leader — trying to escape it, to share it, to grapple with it, to express it, and trying not to give in to it.

Can you tell that I really loved this movie? I hope so.

If you’ve seen Selma, what did you think?