David Oyelowo, third from right in the foreground, plays Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma.” (Paramount)

The Reelist is a column about Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. To read Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday’s review of “Selma″ click here.

In my previous life as a teacher, I spent my first year at a private school on the West Side of Chicago where the student population was 100 percent African-American. One day, during one of those Midwestern winters when the wind doesn’t so much blow as slap you repeatedly in the face, one of my students asked if I had any lotion, because she was “ashy.” I had no idea what she was talking about. I also didn’t know what a hot comb was or why it would hurt; I didn’t know that “chitterlings” isn’t pronounced the way it’s spelled. These were things that fell outside my experience.

Now I know what a hot comb is, and I know why it might hurt — but I’ve never used one on my hair. I’ve learned, but I haven’t lived.

That’s what watching “Selma,” the story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., for voting rights, was like for me. I could only watch this masterful film, so beautiful and brutal, through my white eyes. Most of the audience at the screening watched it through black eyes. It’s an overly simplistic folly to say that by the end of the film we were all watching it through American eyes, or all watching it through colorless eyes. But we were nearly all crying.

“Selma,” released last week, breaks through the ignorance and privilege that white people can enjoy when it comes to race in America. I can send my son to our local playground with a toy gun and my biggest worry would be that another mom might judge me for letting him play with toy guns. If my husband gets pulled over for speeding, I’d only be concerned about paying the fine. I believe I would have to try really, really hard to get killed by a police officer. And I could easily pretend that my experience is exactly the same as everyone else’s, because we live in a post-racial society and this is America and aren’t all men created equal?

The greatest danger with “Selma” is that people — black and white, though it’s easier if you’re white — will leave the theater confident that what they watched was a costume drama, a depiction of a struggle long since resolved. But the film is as much about today as it is about 1965; in one scene, when a crowd of African-Americans fall to their knees and raise their hands in silent protest, it’s a moment that rings across the decades. That connection with the present is where the film’s true potential lies.

With its unflinching gaze into history, “Selma” forces white Americans to examine the unearned privileges that come with being white. I wouldn’t have failed a literacy test, as a character does in the movie, because I wouldn’t have been given one in the first place. The film draws a line — clear, but not heavy-handed — to the similar elements of ease white Americans still enjoy. “Selma” doesn’t just tell the story of back then: It asks “what now?” And it demands not only empathy, but answers.


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