Selma is one of the most important films of 2014. Last year, 12 Years A Slave held a similar, weighty status. And the year before that, Spielberg's Lincoln.
I propose a thematic trilogy.
With contributions from a wide variety of talents, separated by different studios, producers and practical challenges, and most importantly, distinctly unique creative visions, these three films nonetheless speak to American culture with an almost communal relevance. If nothing else, the seemingly recent (and sudden) awakening of mainstream cinema to the actual horrors of slavery and racial prejudice in America is worth observing, if after all, these films have each received significant Oscar attention (Selma's very publicized "snubbings" being hardly surprising, given the Academy's obsession with lip service next to its lack of actual integrity). But I think there's also more to it than that.
Chronologically, 12 Years A Slave could very well come first. Before we can fully appreciate why the 13th Amendment needed to be passed, we must first bear witness to the shocking devastation that stands to be eradicated. On the other hand, 12 Years' intimate gaze at the horrific reality of slavery from a subjective point of view of an actual slave makes a perfect "middle film" for the proposed trilogy. Between two historical signposts of social progress, a raw glimpse into what we are left to imagine as a vast sea of depravity and suffering is the perfect potency to anchor the three films. 12 Years is not privy to private White House correspondence. It's not privy to the much bigger, historical picture. And in that way it compliments (and is complimented by) both Lincoln and Selma; two films that recognize their own historical weightiness.
And yet, all three films are surprisingly intimate in their perspectives. The refreshing lack of heavy handed political routine and faceless agenda makes for a trilogy that is wholly personal and humane. Lincoln balances Spielbergian melodrama with raw, intelligent staging and dialogue, giving us an insightful and challenging glimpse into the complexities involved in bringing about social progress. As the trilogy progresses, the "issue" becomes even less so and more of a purely human story, as black voices substantially become as important to our ears as white ones. By the time Martin Luther King, Jr. enters the historical scenario, it's tempting to sigh in exasperation in the face of the fact that we just "haven't figured it out yet."
And that's exactly the point of Selma.
This is an ongoing story. We know that all too well. For this reason, and for Selma's humble and honest acknowledgment of it, we are compelled to respond. These films don't only paint a revealing picture of our past, they point towards the future. They propel their themes and topics into the now. We yearn to cast our own vote in the house of representatives in hopes of bringing about political progress. We yearn to be as sensible and gracious as Brad Pitt's character in the midst of tumultuous economy and aggravating bias. We yearn to see more leaders respond to incredible injustice with the kind of grace and humility demonstrated by Martin Luther King.
We yearn to join the march.