Selma – 2014
This was a very good movie. It was well-made, superbly acted, wonderfully powerful, and incredibly inspirational. It is a historical drama about the civil rights activist and politician, Martin Luther King Jr. and his efforts to obtain unencumbered voting rights for African American citizens, particularly in the south.
The film’s beginning was shocking and very intense. After a short scene introducing David Oyelowo playing Martin Luther King Jr. and Carmen Ejogo playing his wife, Coretta Scott King, we transition to a Baptist church in Birmingham. It is quiet and peaceful. Several young black girls are walking down the stairs chatting about how much they admire a woman’s hair. It was a picture of complete innocence. The lighting was like that of a magical golden afternoon. But one of the beautiful young girls is cut off in mid-sentence as a bomb explodes from out of nowhere, killing all the children. Right from the start, my emotions were rattled.
Now, knowing only that the film was going to be about King, I assumed that the plot was going to cover his “I Have a Dream” speech and maybe end with his assassination. I was wrong on both counts. This was the story of how he did two things. First, he went to the White House and negotiated with President Lyndon Banes Johnson, played by Tom Wilkinson, trying to get him to enact laws that would enable blacks to vote unencumbered. That word, unencumbered, is the key word, because black people could already vote under the law. But in reality the racist white people in power like Alabama’s governor, George Wallace, played by Tim Roth, and Sheriff Jim Clark, played by Stan Houston, refuse to allow them to vote. When civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper, played by Oprah Winfrey, tries to legally register, she is asked ridiculous questions by the white registrar that nobody would be able to answer, and is subsequently denied.
The second thing the film focuses on is the three marches from Selma to Montgomery, a fifty-four mile journey. The first march was cut short when the peaceful protesters were attacked with billy clubs and tear gas. One marcher, Jimmy Lee Jackson, played by Lakeith Stanfield, was even shot and killed as he tried to protect his grandfather, Cager Lee, played by Henry G. Sanders. The second march, with activists from all over the country participating, successfully made it over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. When Sheriff Clark and his troops stood aside, King took a moment to pray, and then turned the marchers around, trying to keep the protestors safe. The third march took place only after Judge Frank Minis Johnson, played by Martin Sheen, declared the peaceful protest legal in court.
After LBJ speaks to Congress, asking for the swift passage of a bill to eliminate voting restrictions, and praising King and the protesters for their courage and perseverance, King led his followers to the Montgomery courthouse. Of course, he gives an impassioned speech, and this is where the movie ends. Little bits of text are shown at the bottom of the screen to explain what happened to the key players in the drama. We learn that some of King’s closest aids in Selma like Andrew Young, played by Andre Holland, became a Congressman and later a U.N. Ambassador, and later still, Mayor of or Atlanta, or John Lewis, played by Stephan James, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Apparently the film was incredibly historically accurate, with one exception. The character of President Johnson was portrayed as King’s political rival. The two were mostly shown arguing with each other, King making demands, and Johnson making excuses as to why they had to be denied. According to the movie, Johnson was reluctant to help King’s efforts, and only made his plea to Congress after King and his marches had backed him into a political corner. Apparently this is a misrepresentation. From what I have read, Johnson and King were able to work together quite well, and there was very little political tension between the two men.
In fact, the film’s director, Ava DuVernay, was criticized for making a film that rewrote history to portray her own political agenda. And her response to the accusation was perfect. She said that the movie is “not a documentary. I’m not a historian. I’m a storyteller.” I couldn’t agree more. In fact, the real John Lewis said, “We do not demand completeness of other historical dramas, so why is it required of this film?” He is absolutely right. Suffice to say, the film was mostly historically accurate, which I think went a long way to making the film as good as it is. I enjoyed watching it. This is one of those movies that is important to watch. It really did a great job of showing off Dr. King’s ideals, his peaceful intentions, and his dream of racial equality. It is a story that is as relevant today as it was when the real events took place in 1965.
And as a last thought, I have to mention how incredibly phenomenal David Oyelowo was in the lead role. He was handsome, charismatic, intense, and completely engaging. He played the part like nobody else could have, and he made it look easy. It must have been difficult to portray such a famous and iconic character, but I believe he really did the roll justice. Well done!