The release of "Selma," the upcoming movie tracing the Martin Luther King Jr.-led march from the Alabama city in the title to the state capital of Montgomery, lands in the middle of the golden anniversaries of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Right Act of 1965.
But the timing of the film reaches far beyond half-century benchmarks: "Selma" arrives during a year in which "I can't breathe" and "Black lives matter" became rallying cries, adding a new resonance – and urgency – to realizing King's dream. The movie, which opens on Christmas Day, also offers an opportunity to reflect on struggles that haven't ended, even if they've changed.
That doesn't negate progress – it's fine to highlight how far the nation has come while underscoring how far there is to go. For many, the decision of grand juries in Staten Island, N.Y., and Ferguson, Mo. to not indict police officers in the deaths of two African American men, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, represents a new wakeup call.
Demonstrations fueled in part by awareness raised through social media echo King's use of the then-growing prominence of television to spread his message – and the role TV played in spotlighting horrors like the Bloody Sunday attack by local cops and state troopers on the first wave of Selma marchers. As King, his colleagues and his followers showed, peaceful protest and galvanizing anger at injustice don't have to be mutually exclusive.
"Selma" reportedly might not have been made without the support of Oprah Winfrey, who built an entertainment empire on the power of words. In addition to signing on as a producer, Winfrey also has a role in the film, which stars the relatively unknown British actor David Oyelowo as one of the United States' most famous citizens.
There’s always a danger of a transformative figure like King being reduced to a symbol, particularly in a film that condenses a pivotal stretch of American history to two hours. But “Selma” remains an important story to tell and re-tell, one as relevant as ever as our society grapples with what bonds us as much as with what separates us.
Movies, especially ones depicting real events, don't always have neatly wrapped endings. But history-based films, at their finest, can reflect an ongoing, shared journey, even if the travelers’ burdens might be far from equal. Check out a preview as “Selma” opens Thursday with a wider release set for Jan. 9.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multimedia NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.