David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. (center back) in SELMA
It’s been a while since I’ve seen as stirring a movie as Selma, Director Ava DuVernay’s retelling of the Selma, Alabama, Civil Rights marches in 1965 – one of the most heroic episodes in a saga known for heroism.
It’s an important story. Although the marches came on the heels of a racist atrocity, instead of just vomiting rage, Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) and his fellow civil rights leaders had a specific strategic goal in mind. Their planned civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery was designed to trigger the passage of yet-to-be-drafted legislation, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They knew that there would be risks to all and sacrifices by many – both martyrs to the cause and victims of terrorism. Those sacrifices were real and are depicted in the movie. As the civil rights leaders navigate the reefs of local Jim Crow rule and murderous racist terrorism, Selma’s story is compelling minute-to-minute.
King himself must bear the burden of responsibility of a leader sending his charges out to possibly sacrifice their lives. All the time, he is receiving threats to his safety and that of his family, dealing with blackmail and character assassination and going through a rough patch in his marriage to Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo).
But Selma, like history, is not a One Man Show. King doesn’t just dictate the path for his Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC). He has to work with his colleagues in the SCLC and reach out to build a coalition with the local African-American community and other national organizations, chiefly the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). King is not just another noble face. He’s got to show a canny craftiness as a study in negotiating, a guy who knows when to hold ‘em and knows when to fold ‘em.
Here’s something else that Selma does extraordinarily well. I’m a history buff who understands that – to relate a historical narrative in 90-120 minutes – filmmakers must compress historical events and compound characters. However, Selma allows us to glimpse the broad canvas by seeing other important figures of the Civil Rights movement – Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy, Hosea Williams, John Lewis, James Forman, Diane Nash, James Bevel, James Orange and even Malcom X and Bayard Rustin. There are also the white martyrs James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo. And New York Times reporter Roy Reed is there, representing the handful of national newsmen who brought the civil rights struggle into the homes of non-Southern America. As villains, we have not just George Wallace (Tim Roth) but Al Mingo and Sheriff Jim Clark.
And what about the controversial depiction of President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson)? The short answer is that Selma’s treatment of LBJ is sometimes factually inaccurate and definitely wrong in tone. As much as Selma gets the Alabama scenes right, it gets all the Washington, DC, scenes wrong. When the movies opens, LBJ has just delivered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – the most important advancement in Civil Rights since the 13th and 14th amendments a century before; he thus ended legal segregation in America. Selma is about the effort to enact the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and LBJ and MLK were BOTH essential to achieving this milestone as well. Any reader of LBJ bios can tell you that the man had demonstrated his passion for Civil Rights since his year as a 20-year-old teacher of Mexican-Americans in Cotulla, Texas. When Selma depicts LBJ as having to be brow beaten by MLK to push the Voting Rights Act, it’s inaccurate and unnecessary; the effect is to create a serious flaw in the film.
But the bottom line is this – see the movie anyway. At its core, the movie is about what happened in Selma and within the leadership of the Civil Rights movement – it generally gets that right.
After seeing Selma, I reflected on the media landscape in 1965 – where every home in America watched the TV news from either CBS, NBC or ABC. The repugnant spectacle of the white mob beating the peaceful demonstrators came into every American living room, including mine. We Americans all saw the same thing. But in today’s media environment, a huge fraction of the country gets its news from Fox News, which would likely twist and minimize the very facts that mobilized a nation in 1965 – and another huge fraction would be watching non-news content and miss the controversy all together.
But my most sobering reflection upon leaving the theater was this – right now the Republican Congress and the majority of the US Supreme Court are trying their hardest to emasculate the very Voting Rights Act that was the culmination of the campaign in the movie Selma.
In a uniformly well-acted movie, David Oyelowo deserves special praise for his portrayal of MLK. Oprah Winfrey and veteran character actor Henry G. Sanders are the best of the rest. On a personal note, I relished seeing one of my faves Wendell Pierce (Treme and The Wire) and also up-and-comer Tessa Thompson of Dear White People.
Selma is inspirational, kids should see it and families should discuss it. It’s just outside the Top Ten of my Best Movies of 2014. Selma is available on DVD from Netflix and Redbox; you can stream it from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, Xbox Video and Flixster.