Selma and “Selma”: Writing Assignments

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This blog was originally posted on January 20th, 2015.

For the past several years, I have assigned readings by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in my basic writing courses. When I have been required to use specific textbooks, I try to choose texts that offer Dr. King’s work in the readings. When I can choose my own texts or have been able to use supplemental texts, I have linked to multimedia texts at the King Papers Project at Stanford University, the King Center Digital Archive, and American Rhetoric: Top 100 Speeches.

This semester, I will once more assign Dr. King’s work (see Assignment Appendix at the end of this post), but with a decided difference.  Students will now have a case study from popular culture: Ava DuVernay's Selma, a film that portrays the events surrounding the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march in Alabama in 1965. This film, which is now playing in theaters across the United States, was shot on location and is beautifully photographed. The score takes its music from Civil Rights Movement Freedom songs, as well as from contemporary artists such as John Legend and Common.

Selma does not pretend to be a documentary, but more an artistic depiction of history. For documentary footage from historic events at Selma, students can reference the Eyes on the Prize video series, much of which is available on YouTube.  The similarities and differences between these two versions are quite striking, and they offer ample opportunities for comparison essays. Students can pay attention to visual and auditory details, and also can observe how two different texts portray the same story. Dr. King’s speech at the Alabama state capital in Montgomery also is available as a text in on Stanford’s King Papers Project, referenced above.

Because the film is an artistic depiction, aspects of Dr. King’s personal life can be explored in scenes not available in the historical footage. For writing teachers and the writers we teach, perhaps the most significant of these aspects is Dr. King’s life as a writer. The new Selma film shows Dr. King in Sweden, rehearsing his Nobel Laureate speech, just before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Other scenes show Dr. King writing with pen and paper, working late into the night, carefully weighing and choosing the appropriateness of his words.

These scenes offer inspiration and hope to writers working to develop and improve    their writing practices, processes, and products. Writing is hard work, and Selma shows us that hard work, from invention, to revision, to publication, as we see and hear the actor David Oyelowo as Dr. King speak to electrified audiences.


Because I do not know how many of my students will have seen Selma by the first day of school, I will base our opening assignments on comparisons between the film trailer for Selma (above), excerpts from the documentary footage of Eyes on the Prize 1965, and the audio recording of Dr. King’s speech at the Montgomery, Alabama State Capital. Here are possible assignments drawn from the sources linked throughout this blog post.

Directed free-writing question:

What major events or images stand out in the excerpts from Eyes on the Prize 1965 and the film trailer for Selma?  What are the similarities and differences between these two videos?  Is each of these videos relevant for a 2015 audience? Why or why not?

Essay assignment question:

What are the functions of sound and music in film? Compare the sound and music in the excerpts from Eyes on the Prize, 1965, the trailer forSelma, and the audio version of Dr. King’s speech at the Montgomery, Alabama State Capital. Are these functions relevant for audiences in 2015? Why or why not? Include significant details from both videos and the audio. Describe any words or phrases, sounds, and/or music. Imagine that your audience has not yet seen either video or listened to the audio.

Accommodation for deaf students, students with hearing loss, and students with auditory processing differences: Focus on the visual elements instead, including the visual images of the videos, and the visual elements in this excerpt from historic video footage of Dr. King’s speech in Montgomery at the conclusion of the march.

Multimedia assignment:

Include a multimedia argument to illustrate the text your essay text. For the multimedia argument, first choose a quote or passage from Dr. King’s speech at the Montgomery, Alabama State Capital. Then invent a meme, compose a song or sound compilation, or make a film, slide show or photo gallery. The multimedia component must coordinate with the thesis of your essay and must be your own work.

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.