'Selma' sparks discussion of racism from civil rights era to 21st century

Johns Hopkins hosts free student screening of film followed by Q&A

More than 200 Johns Hopkins students filled the Charles Theatre on Wednesday night for a free screening of the Academy Award-nominated historical drama Selma, followed by a panel discussion that drew similarities between events depicted in the film and more recent events dealing with race and discrimination.

The film highlights the revolutionary movement for voting rights, led by Martin Luther King Jr., following passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

"I was absolutely blown away," said junior biology major Stephanie Yokoyama. "After watching Selma, where we witnessed the detail, emotional investment, and passion [King] had, I gained an understanding at a completely different level."

Student Government Association President Janice Bonsu gave the opening remarks.

"The draw of this film is that it is an amazing account of American history—our history," she said. "The story of perseverance is one that will never age."

British actor David Oyelowo gave an electrifying performance as King, who leads the bloody march from Selma to Montgomery. Ava DuVernay directed this adaption of Paul Webb's original screenplay, the first Hollywood feature film with King at the center.

The film's release was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Selma march and passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It also comes on the heels of much-publicized recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, where a grand jury opted to not indict a white police officer that fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown. Barely a week later, waves of protests erupted in New York and elsewhere across the country when a grand jury did not indict a police officer in the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York.

"I am so happy we have this opportunity to begin a conversation about the history of racism in this country, but I also think that the incredible interest in this film speaks to its relevance to current events, especially now as the country is captivated by the issue of police brutality, this movie draws clear parallels between the past and present," Phil Montgomery, president of JHU's Black Student Union, said before the film. "I hope this movie will inspire further discussions and solutions to the problems we face."

Two prominent guests joined a discussion that followed the film: Taylor Branch, a 2014 Johns Hopkins honorary degree recipient and Pulitzer Prize-winning author best known for his landmark trilogy on the civil rights era, America in the King Years; and Nathan Connolly, an assistant professor of history at Johns Hopkins; co-director for the Program on Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship; and author of A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida.

The panelists spoke about the importance of taking action and sparking conversations to incite and inspire movements, even when the government disenfranchises its citizens. They put recent events and the events portrayed in the film into a greater historical context.

Students expressed their concerns with provisions in place today that affect voting—gerrymandering and voter ID laws. If voting is a fundamental right in a democracy, the panelists said, then the right to vote must be championed, even today.

"It's not hard to see how acutely we need people like you who can provide, provoke, and inspire change, " said Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels, addressing the students who attended the screening.

Freshman neuroscience major Morris Mou said he enjoyed the opportunity to interact with faculty and students to discuss the film.

"I think it's really amazing how this is a movie about people coming together and then uniting their differences," he said, "and here we are as a Hopkins community coming together to celebrate this movement."

Johns Hopkins Provost Robert C. Lieberman, who moderated the Q&A, concluded the evening by challenging students to think about how they can continue the discussion and help shape the future.

"There is no guarantee that history goes forward," he said. "It is our responsibility to think forward and push history forward in any way we can."

The event was sponsored by the Office of the President, the Office of the Provost, the Black Student Union, and the Student Government Association.