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Lawrenzo Howell

Dr. McLaughlin
WR 13330
10 April 2015
African Americans and Police Brutality
The film Selma recreates the monumental Civil Rights marches lead by Dr. Martin Luther
King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama. Director Ava DuVernay gives the audience an idea of the racial and
political obstacles African Americans had to face in order to gain equal voting rights as well as
respect as coequal human beings. Selma, produced in 2014, goes far beyond revealing the roots
of anti-black oppression and demonstrates this by showing the abundance of police brutality
faced by African Americans. Given the recent deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown in 2013,
racial tensions between law enforcement and African Americans has continued to be a dividing
issue in America. Selma offers a mirror into the past through which the audience can observe a
period where racial discrimination by law enforcement was at an all-time high. With its use of
inspiring music, graphic scenes, and media representation, Selma persuades its audience to
examine the past and use the knowledge gained to evaluate the current relationship between the
police force and the African American community.
As a rhetorical text, Selma responds to a rhetorical situation. The rhetorical situation is
the context of a rhetorical event that consists of: exigence (something waiting to be done),
audience (who is influenced to take action), and constraints (restrictions on the rhetor) (Bitzer 7).

The exigence in this case is the racial discrimination faced by African Americans at the hands of
law enforcement. The intended audience is the younger generation of our country because they
will have the power to eradicate racial discrimination. Although this film is appropriate for the
entire generation of people, it is most important that the younger half of the generation sees this
film so that they can observe the brutality in Americas history and feel inclined to make change.
The constraint is that the film is only a recreation of what happened in 1965, so we cannot
actually see the full degree in which many citizens suffered to achieve equality. Although this
limits the audiences knowledge in a sense, Selma still offers an accurate depiction that gives the
audience a great sense of what happened in Selma, Alabama. Many people believe that we live in
post-racial society. Since this film depicts an event that took place 50 years ago, many viewers
believe that this film cannot properly represent race relations in modern-day America; therefore,
this is another constraint of the film. After watching the film, however, the audience should be
informed about the link between Selma and the present.
The filmmakers incorporate graphic scenes in order to give the audience a great sense of
the brutality that took place in Selma, Alabama. From barbwire wrapped bats to Taser guns and
batons, the usage of violent weapons by the law enforcement was common throughout the film.
One way the filmmakers were able to produce these scenes was through the use of camera
angling. Camera angling refers to the way in which filmmakers record scenes in order to
highlight certain subjects. According to Lancioni, Camera angling is crucial in expressing
different expressions which will in turn elicit different responses by the audience (105). Cameras
often did close ups using mobile framing on violent scenes to emphasize the amount of pain
inflicted on to innocent African Americans by the police force. An example of this is
immediately after the first attack on the bridge, the cameras focus on individual citizens to show

the injuries they endured. In The Rhetoric of the Frame,Lancioni states that the close ups
achieved through mobile framing and reframing enables viewers to experience the past on the
intimate terms they have been conditioned to regard as reality(107). This specific experience
elicited sympathy for the innocent protestors as well as resentment towards the law enforcement.
Through the compilation of cringe-worthy moments composed of violence, tragedy, and
sorrow, DuVernay was able to reel her audience in so that they could closely examine the horrors
of what took place during that time. The use of graphic, violent scenes in this film is so crucial in
helping the audience examine the horrors of that time because we live in a culture that is
increasingly permeated by visual images with a variety of purposes and intended effects
(Practices of Looking 10). Since the audience cannot physically witness the Civil Rights
Movement, the film was produced in a way that gave the audience as close of a reality of what
occurred during the Selma marches. The visuals in this film are so intense and realistic that they
captivate the audience in a way that books and magazines simply cannot. Without scenes that
make the audience feel as if they are actually experiencing the pain that the characters in the film
are experiencing firsthand, it is hard for them to walk away with a feeling of true empathy.
Without a feeling of true empathy, viewers cannot apply the information given in Selma to the
modern day racially influenced police brutality in America because they will feel as if racially
influenced police brutality does not affect them directly.
DuVernay uses sound to set the overall tone for scene in the film. If fear painted on the
face of innocent citizens wasnt enough, the sounds of screaming and cries for help only
intensifies the amount of sympathy the audience should have for these people. Hearing loud gun
shots go BANG! adds a sense of realism, placing audience members in the scene as if they
were there witnessing someone get shot and killed for doing absolutely nothing wrong. Hearing

the cries of a mother and grandfather who just witnessed their son get murdered by police
officers challenges viewers to express sorrow and empathy. This is because we as viewers have
a tendency to sympathize for those we believe are mistreated. The power of empathy allows
viewers to place themselves in other persons shoes. This persuades the viewers to then act in a
way in which they would want someone else to act. For Selma, hearing innocent protestors
scream from abuse would evoke a response of helping those people. Since our country is past
the Civil Rights Movement, DuVernays hope is that the audience will thus feel the responsibility
to help the minorities who are oppressed by the police force today.
Another element of sound Selma uses is music. The film demonstrates an array of
musical selections to help convey its argument. Music appears to increase emotional response
(Morris). The music in the film is utilized in a way that captures the specific emotion portrayed
in each scene. The film uses a mix of gospel and blues music whenever there is a scene of
struggle or hopelessness. An example being the scene in which King preaches at Jimmie Lee
Jacksons funeral service. Jackson was murdered by police officers in front of his mother and
grandfather because he was one of the lead protestors at the night protest that King was not
present at. The use of gospel music emphasizes the sorrow and sadness the scene entails. It also
restores the faith that many of the protestors lost. This is synonymous with the faith in humanity
many audience members may have lost after witnessing multiple human beings being murdered
by bigot cops; but after hearing the inspiring gospel music, they may have gained the hope they
needed. The film also uses music to subconsciously foreshadow what will happen later in the
movie. With its use of upbeat tunes, the audience is able to gauge that intense action will come
soon; take for example the attacks by police officers. Producers use intense music to match the
intense fighting that would soon appear. Exciting music has shown to increase emotional arousal

in subjects via their skin response and heart rate, which are assumed to be the two physiological
manifestations of emotional response (Morris). So, the upbeat music that the filmmakers use is
meant to stimulate the audience in a way that elicits an emotional response.
Arguably the most notable song in the film appears at the end in order to send one last
powerful message to the audience. The Oscar-winning song, Glory, makes an impact in Selma
not only because of the important history it documents, but also because of the recent police
shootings of unarmed black men that led to protests across the country. Connecting the past with
the present, musical artist, Common, raps, Resistance is usThats why Rosa sat on the bus
Thats why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up. This reminds the audience of the
current police brutality events that make an impact on our country today by using past events as
a means for comparison. Through its use of contemporary music, the film is able to attract a
younger demographic as well. The music used in movie trailers is upbeat and catchy, music that
attracts younger people. The contemporary music is laid over historic marches in order to argue
that Selma is not just meant to give a history lesson. Rather, it is important in todays society. The
Selma marches that took place fifty years ago foreshadowed the march on Ferguson and other
current day Civil Rights marches. By showing that the film is pertinent to todays society,
filmmakers hope to attract a younger generation. This is important because it is the younger
generation who will be the ones who can make a change in the future, particularly the
elimination of racial discrimination by law enforcement. Overall, music was pertinent in
highlighting the different emotions embedded throughout the film as well as attracting certain
age groups to watch the film.
The film also shows a very important method in which social change was possible during
the Civil Rights Movement: media. During the Civil Rights movement, media quickly became a

crucial weapon in stopping police brutality. Selma emphasizes the importance of this with its use
of media coverage throughout the film. With several images of cameras, televisions, and radios
throughout the film, it was obvious that America was starting to become consumed with media as
a means of acquiring knowledge. Marchers took advantage of this by using media coverage to
show the rest of America how badly African Americans were being treated. Before the
horrendous attacks were televised, millions of Americans had no clue that this type of
mistreatment was occurring in the South. Filmmakers made note of this by showing families
watching the marches on television. The scene where hundreds of protestors were beat down on
the bridge during a protest was televised all over news stations. Over seventy million viewers
watched the police wrongfully assault peaceful protestors. Because of this media coverage,
everyone was talking about the South. The violence broadcasted all over television news was
enough to appeal to the ethics and the emotions of Americans. It also shows the logical
contradiction to depend on the law to protect citizens when the law enforcement is part of the
issue. By witnessing innocent African Americans being beaten by police officers on TV, White
Americans were able to realize the logical contradictions that the bridge incident contained.
These contradictions appealed to the TV viewers logos- evidence based in logic and reasoning
(The University Writing Program The Ethical, Rhetorical, and Practical). This appeal to the TV
viewers logic is important because it persuaded thousands of Northerners including priests and
pastors to travel to Selma, Alabama to help stop the unjust oppression. It is also important to
Selmas audience because it allows the audience to evaluate police relations in the African
American community solely on their sense of rationality and reasoning.
Fifty years later, media coverage continues to play a significant role in exposing the
unjust racial discrimination against African Americans by law enforcement. With the cases of

Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, media coverage was used in a way that
ignited many Americans to do something about the social injustices. Selma connects the
importance of media coverage and social change during the Civil Rights Movement with its
importance in todays society.
Some viewers believe that the film does not show racially influenced police brutality that
can be applicable to today. They believe that since the film depicts events from fifty years ago,
we as viewers cannot use it as an accurate portrayal of todays society. This view is valid because
our country has made a lot of progress since the Civil Rights Movement; however, I believe
Selma can be used as an accurate portrayal of todays society since we do have modern day
police brutality. Although police brutality isnt as bad as Selmas portrayal, society still needs to
acknowledge that it still exists and we as a country need to work to eliminate it. The audience
should be inclined to ask the questions: Why did law enforcement target the African Americans
in the film? And why do they target African Americans today?
Media during the Civil Rights movement, as displayed in film, was relatively new;
however, it made a major difference because it displayed behavior that many Americans were not
aware of. Politicians at that time , such as President Johnson, took advantage of this and
strategically planned out times to act as if they cared about the violence(when the cameras were
rolling) and ignore the violence(when the cameras werent rolling).Today, media is a huge
component in the lives of most Americans. But it seems as though media is not contributing to
the change necessary in America like it did in the 1960s. It is almost as if Americans have
become somewhat immune to media coverage in the sense that seeing violence in the media does
not persuade them to make a change. This questions the importance of black lives in America
today in comparison to the Civil Rights movement. With Selma, DuVernay challenges her

audience to pay closer attention to the police brutality portrayed in the media today, and work
towards eliminating this issue as the Northern citizens did in the film.
There is a general consensus that police officers are good and have the right intentions.
After watching Selma and reflecting on the amount of police brutality African Americans had to
endure, it is clear that police officers have not always lived up to the expectations that their job
entails. The question then is this: why is it so hard to believe that the same type of behavior no
longer occurs in America? Some argue that time has allowed for the elimination of racial
discrimination by law enforcement. However, by connecting the events that took place in the
film with the racially motivated attacks that still occur fifty years later, it is very evident that
police brutality towards the African American community can and still exists.

Work Cited
Bitzer, Lloyd. "II." The Rhetorical Situation. Penn State UP. 7. Print.
Lancioni, Judith. "Revision Archical Photographs in the Civil War." The Rhetoric of the
Frame.107. Print.
Selma. Dir. Ava DuVernay. Perf. David Oyelowo. Paramount Pictures, 2014. Film.
Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture.
"The Effects of Music on Emotional Response, Brand Attitude, and Purchase Intent in an
Emotional Advertising Condition." By Jon D. Morris and Mary Anne Boone. N.p., n.d. Web. 03
Apr. 2015 d UP, 2001. 10. Print.
"The Ethical, Rhetorical, and Practical." The University Writing Program. The University of
Notre Dame, 2015. Web.