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January 06, 2015
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The animatronic German shepherds are great, but what's the takeaway?

SelmaThemePark.jpg

The movie Selma opens nationwide this Friday, and critics are already hailing it as an incredible achievement. For its visceral, harrowing portrayal of the three Civil Rights marches led by Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by incredible British actor David Oyelowo) and other black leaders in March of 1965 from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, it is by all accounts a triumph. Be that as it may, I’m not so sure the Selma-themed interactive ride Universal Studios opened earlier this week is such a great idea.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m all for people learning as much as possible about this nation’s troubled history in regard to Civil Rights, but I have to ask: Is having actors play racist southern policemen and scream the N-word at tourists (regardless of ethnicity) really effectively teaching the lessons of Dr. King and the other brave protesters? And being sprayed with high-powered firehoses may well be, as the press release says, “righteously refreshing!”, but does it properly honor the legacy of those who sacrificed so much in the name of equality?

And yes, the animatronic German shepherds may be “remarkably lifelike” and “scary,” as many Yelp reviewers will tell you, but my fear is that all the thrills and chills offered by the ride are diminishing the true importance of the movement it purports to celebrate. It may be a good laugh for the whole family to have a slobbering mechanical attack dog sink its rubberized fangs into grandma’s rear end, but what’s the takeaway?

To be totally fair, I would like to award the ride’s creators top marks for authenticity. Giving patrons the option to walk on a treadmill for the full 53 miles while the robo-dogs are snapping, the firehoses are spraying, the riot police are screaming, and the fog machines spew "tear gas” does offer the opportunity to experience some semblance of what the original marchers went through 50 years ago. But it seems that most guests step off after just a couple of minutes because they’re so excited about getting their picture taken with the plywood cut-outs of virulently racist Alabama Governor George Wallace.

By the time fun seekers leave the attraction, they’re so over-stimulated that I have a hard time believing even the “White/Colored Only” segregated exits have the intended effect.

My biggest gripe with the whole thing is the merchandising, though. It’s to be expected that a theme park is going to capitalize on every aspect of its attractions, and the “I Survived Selma!” T-shirts are one thing. But the “We Shall Over-Corn Dogs”? That’s just shameful.

For the most part, though, I think Universal Studios’ heart is in the right place with this ride, and hopefully they’ll learn their lesson with future properties. I for one can’t wait to see what they’ve got planned for the American Sniper shooting range attraction.

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