It was an incredibly surreal moment. I saw Don Lemon cry his eyes out.
Two weeks ago, I attended an advance screening of Selma in a crowded, half-press and half-public Times Square movie theater. Earlier that same week, the city-wide protests over the decision to not indict Daniel Pantaleo, the policeman who killed Eric Garner, had come down. A couple of weeks prior, protests erupted in Ferguson, Mo. over a similar lack-of-indictment in Michael Brown's murder, which the widely hated-on Don Lemon had reported on for CNN—and, that's right, over which he was berated on public television by angry protesters ("Fuck CNN!") and, months prior, Talib Kweli.
Tensions were high throughout NYC that evening. Little did I know that Selma would provide an overwhelming sense of therapy for everyone in that theater. In terms of timely movies, it’s startlingly perfect for right now.
The film, directed by indie darling gone major Ava DuVernay, is a towering achievement, a Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic that bucks all of the stilted, creaky biopic movie tropes. Rather than a sprawling, sleepy life-spanning story, like last year’s ineffective Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Selma focuses specifically on Dr. King’s efforts to get the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, in order to allow black Americans the freedom to vote without any governmental or law enforcement disruptions. British actor David Oyelowo plays King with an amazing elegance, tapping into the man’s insecurities and character flaws while also capturing King’s larger-than-life leadership presence and inspirational magnitude. DuVernay’s film revolves around the 50-mile march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, Ala., and the horrific ways in which local police officers wailed upon the marchers before eventually giving way to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s (Tom Wilkinson) decision to pass the voting act.
Randomly, I found myself only two seats away from Don Lemon. I couldn’t help but notice the TV news anchor fighting back tears during the majority of Selma. He wasn’t alone. Sobs could be heard, and in some cases seen, in every row. By the film’s end, I, too, wiped drops from my eyes.
Two middle-aged black women sitting directly behind me wept the loudest. The scene that triggered their—and, not to mention, Don Lemon’s—rawest emotions is, in my eyes, the year’s most devastating big-screen moment. Its power lies in how current and alarming it feels, despite the fact that it’s a reenactment of a 50-year-old tragedy.
Short Term 12 breakout Keith Stanfield plays Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 27-year-old Selma protester who, along with his grandfather, Cager Lee (Henry G. Sanders), and mother, Viola Lee Jackson (Charity Jordan), was inspired by Dr. King. In February 1965, he and his loved ones took part in a nighttime march from the Zion United Methodist Church to a local jail, where a civil rights leader was being held behind bars. Cops intervened, attacking the protesters and sending Jackson, his mom, and grandpa fleeing into a quaint cafe to hide out. The officers followed them in and roughed up Cager Lee. Jackson, while unarmed, tried to stop the altercation before one of the cops shot him in the chest. He died that night.
Jackson’s murder is what finally erased Dr. King’s doubts and motivated him to mobilize the fateful 50-mile protest. In Selma, it’s powerfully acted by the excellent Stanfield and viscerally staged by DuVernay. She follows it up with Dr. King consoling the elder Cager Lee; their somber exchange reflects the overpowering despair that comes from seeing Michael Brown’s parents on the news or Eric Garner’s young daughter's "die-in" at the site of her father’s death. In our current social climate, Jimmie Lee Jackson’s shooting is painfully familiar. While watching the scene, the video clip of Eric Garner pleading with those Staten Island cops (“I can’t breathe!”) kept replaying in my head, alongside the images of that empty Ferguson street on which Michael Brown was gunned down by Darren Wilson.
Common, who co-stars in Selma as Civil Rights leader James Bevel, echoed the same reaction when we spoke about the film two days later. "It’s tough to know that you’re in a country where a 17-year-old kid can just be shot," says the rapper/actor. "No matter how people try to justify it, it’s still the loss of a 17-year-old kid. You don’t want to see that. When I first read about what happened to Jimmy Lee Jackson, it was before Mike Brown, and it was disturbing. But now, I can’t help but think of Mike Brown. As soon as I see that scene in Selma, I automatically go to Mike Brown."
There’s a sadness to the fact that what we’re seeing on the news these days isn’t much different to what happened half-a-century ago. A similar feeling struck me last year while interviewing Michael B. Jordan and filmmaker Ryan Coogler about their film Fruitvale Station. That film’s about Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old black man/father/husband who was killed by a cop on New Year’s Day 2009 in an Oakland, Calif. BART station. Released in July 2013, Fruitvale Station opened during the same week in which George Zimmerman was found “not guilty” in the death of Trayvon Martin; like Selma in December 2014, Fruitvale Station felt uncomfortably of-the-moment.
In Selma’s case, the negative déjà vu is all the more troubling. The lack of change over 50 years is tough to accept. "Even though it’s, in a way, a period film, [Selma] is now," says Common. "At one point that was going to be one of the hashtags for Selma: #SelmaIsNow. What we see in the film, these events that happened 50 years ago, is all happening right now. Honestly, it’s sad, but hopefully people can find hope in that. Fifty years ago, they were able to change certain things and were able to move things in a positive direction, and I believe that we are and we will be doing that right now. But it’s still, like—wait, that happened 50 years ago and we still have to deal with those same issues?"
As much as people in that Times Square theater cried, though, they energetically applauded once Selma ended. For all of the film’s strikingly downbeat connections to the present day, it’s ultimately a rallying cry for positivity. Dr. King and his Alabama supporters battle through tremendous adversity to have their voices heard. Though Jimmie Lee Jackson’s murder is the film’s most heartbreaking scene, the protesters’ first attempt to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge is equally eye-opening and crushing. As people all over America watched live on their television sets, Selma officers, both on horseback and foot, chased the marchers back across the bridge with brutal force. Men of all ages were pummeled with night-sticks; women were ran over by horses; people were whipped and left bloody on the concrete. DuVernay shows it all up-close, without cutting away. It's chilling and distressing, a horror movie sequence where everyday men are the monsters. DuVernay forces you to confront the truth of our country's past.
It’ll make you appreciate just how far we’ve come in regards to public assembly. By comparison, this month's #BlackLivesMatter protests have been cordial. "The strength that they showed during that time, that’s real courage and real heart," says Common. "We’re talking about women who were 50, 60 years old, and children, all out there marching for freedom and subjecting themselves to what they knew could be death, or a beating, or being trampled on by horses. It truly is progress that we’re not being treated like that during protests today."
Common continues, "Though we’ve come a long way, there are still unarmed people being killed in the streets. Life is still not being valued as it should be. Ultimately, we get to march and we’re fighting for justice, but there are people who lost their lives and there are family members who have to deal with that. There’s been so much darkness lately, with the murders of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. We have to find the positive things we can get out of that, and really be instruments for the change. We need to say, ‘OK, what can I do?’ Part of it is being out there protesting. That peaceful protest is important. Finding out who are there politicians who represent what you want to see in the world is just as important. It’s all happening right now because it’s supposed to."
Similarly, Selma is opening right now because it’s supposed to. It’s a convergence of subject matter and real-life circumstances that’s remarkably profound. Aside from being one of the year’s best movies, one that deserves to strong-arm the upcoming Academy Awards like Daft Punk did this year’s Grammys, DuVernay’s film will leave you floored. If you’ve been protesting in recent weeks, it’ll stir up an equal amount of tears and inspiration. If you’re a young black man or woman who currently feels vulnerable, hoping that people fully comprehend the #BlackLivesMatter movement, it’ll empower you to no end.
Me, personally? I’ve only watched the protests on television and seen the action via Twitter and Vine, sharing everyone's anguish and anger and questioning how human lives can be treated with such inhumanity. But Selma brought everything home for me. It’s a brilliant and moving example of how the best art can help contextualize life’s toughest realities. It made me connect to Eric Garner and Michael Brown in deeper ways than any Don-Lemon-issued TV report ever could.
And based on how many tissues I saw Lemon wipe across his face, something tells me he'd understand why.
Matt Barone is a Complex senior staff writer. He tweets here.