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Film brings complexity of the civil rights movement to life

Jan. 13, 2015
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Rated: PG-13
Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo and Tom Wilkinson
Directed by Ava DuVernay

Some proclaim that America is a “post-racial society.” Clearly, we aren’t. However, Selma is an important reminder of how far we have come in the 50 years since the historic 1965 voting rights marches in Alabama.

As the film opens, Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) is in Oslo, Norway, about to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. In an all-too-human moment, he anxiously struggles with an ascot and bemoans how it makes him look highfalutin. His wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), rushes to his side, helps him tie the ascot and becalms his frazzled nerves. In the next scene, a group of African American girls are descending the stairwell of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. They are engaged in animated chitchat. Suddenly, a bomb detonates, killing four young innocents. The depiction of splinters flying through the air is an early portent of the film’s artistry.

A subsequent vignette introduces Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey, also a co-producer of the film), a nurse at an Alabama nursing home. Intent upon registering to vote, Annie Lee knows she must endure a gauntlet of questions by the county registrar. In preparation, she has studied the details of local and national government. The registrar demands that Annie Lee recite the preamble of the U.S. Constitution. When Annie Lee recites it hesitantly, but perfectly, he demands that she specify how many county judges there are in the state of Alabama. When Annie Lee responds correctly, he barks, “Name them!” When she is unable to proffer this information, he emphatically stamps Annie’s voting application as rejected.

King and fellow clergymen from the Southern Christian Leadership Council arrive in Selma to organize a drive to register black voters. They had spent a year in Albany, Ga., trying to organize a voter registration drive there. When the local sheriff responded to protests with restraint, efforts to obtain media coverage proved futile. King recognizes that Sheriff John Clark is likely to respond to peaceful protests with brutal tactics and that if it ensues, perhaps it will attract media attention.

The marchers plan to take a 50-mile route from Selma over the city’s Edmund Pettus Bridge to the state capitol in Montgomery. When the unarmed marchers cross the bridge, local police stand ready armed with billy clubs, cattle prods, tear gas and a mounted posse who charge and beat the marchers. Images of Bloody Sunday were captured by television cameras and broadcast nationwide, prompting a groundswell of public revulsion.

Throughout Selma, King is shown in a series of tense meetings in the White House with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). As depicted here, LBJ repeatedly rebuffs King’s requests for a voting rights bill. He claims, “The time’s not right.” In addition, the film suggests that President Johnson prompted J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to forward secretly recorded tapes of King’s adulterous liaisons to his wife. Some historians criticized the film’s vilification of Johnson. They suggest that although the two often had disagreements, their relationship was largely conciliatory, not contentious as depicted in the film.

Despite possible lapses in historical verisimilitude, the debut screenplay by Paul Webb is nuanced and provides fascinating perspective. The film is frank in acknowledging King’s infidelities and the strain that it placed on his marriage. Selma shows King as a pivotal figure, but also as part of a movement. It does an excellent job of dramatizing acrimonious disputes among prominent civil rights leaders.

Director Ava DuVernay made only two prior feature films, both low-budget affairs. She helms Selma with the self-confidence and skill of a far more accomplished director. There is sometimes a tendency to view the outcome of the civil rights movement as a foregone conclusion. However, under DuVernay’s direction, Selma captures the uncertainty and the lethal dangers that confronted activists.

Selma is a masterpiece. For anyone who despairs at the prospect of battling injustice, it serves as a great inspiration.


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