The grassroots campaign to bring “Selma” to schoolchildren across the country free of charge is adding additional cities, organizers said Wednesday.
The Civil Rights drama about Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and the voting rights marches of 1965 will be made available for free to students in Chicago, Dallas, New Orleans, Oakland and the East Bay area and Washington, D.C.
The initiative was launched last week in New York by a group of African-American business leaders that includes former Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons, Essence Magazine founder Ed Lewis, BET Networks chairman Debra Lee and American Express chairman Ken Chenault.
It emerged out of conversations this network of business associates and friends had at various holiday parties as they discussed the film, said Charles Phillips, a former Oracle executive and the CEO of software company Infor.
“It surprised us how little teenagers knew about these events,” he told Variety. “For people my age, it was a very big deal. When it happened, it was transformative for us.”
Phillips used his connections as a board member at Viacom, Paramount’s parent company, to make some introductions to the studio behind “Selma.” The studio immediately seized on the idea, and the cast and crew have embraced the program, with director Ava DuVernay calling organizers to thank them personally.
“The movie has really connected with people,” said Rob Moore, Paramount’s vice chairman. “People have been impacted by the film and by David’s performance and this is one of the ways you’re seeing this incredible response.”
Demand exceeds capacity, with 60,000 attempting to get the 27,000 allotted tickets in less than 48 hours. Following the announcement, social media traffic around the film spiked 25% and additional tickets were quickly added. Backers also helped organize funds to extend the project to cities and states such as Boston, Nashville, New Jersey, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Sarasota and Westchester.
“We were hoping more people would get interested in the film, but this is way beyond what we expected,” said Phillips.
It’s not just leaders in major cities that are reaching out to Phillips and his colleagues. The group is also trying to figure out a way to screen the film for rural areas such as Oakdale, La. (population, 7,780) That tiny town is 40 miles from the nearest movie theater, but Phillips said they’re hammering out logistics to make a screening happen for kids in the community.
In the wake of protests over police violence surrounding the shooting death of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and the chokehold death of Eric Garner, issues of race and civil disobedience are once again making headlines. Because of that, Phillips argues the lessons of King’s march remain relevant to a rising generation of activists and leaders.
“There are a lot of things going on in society right now and the idea of peaceful change couldn’t be more topical,” he said. “It’s certainly worth knowing about the strength of the people in Selma. It’s a story of human struggle and quiet strength that people should know about.”