(2014) True Life Drama (Paramount) David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Andre Holland, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Colman Domingo, Omar J. Dorsey, Common, Tessa Thompson, Dylan Baker, Stephan James, Trai Byers, Henry G. Sanders, Keith Stanfield, Charity Jordan, Tim Roth, Stan Houston, Stephen Root, Nigel Thatch, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alessandro Nivola, Jeremy Strong, Lorraine Toussaint, Tara Ochs. Directed by Ava DuVernay
Selma is a watershed moment in American history and in particular the history of the civil rights movement. The brutality of Southern oppression on its African-American citizen was beamed to all our living rooms for all to see. Martin Luther King’s efforts to organize and call attention on the suppression of voting rights for African-Americans would lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that he had long championed and ended decades of African-Americans having no voice in the governing of their communities, states and country.
In 1965 the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has just come into law and while it is a magnificent piece of legislation preventing discrimination, in the South it may not have been signed into law at all. Those African-Americans attempting to register to vote, much as activist Annie Lee Cooper (Winfrey) was, were met with poll taxes, or impromptu quizzes that nobody could answer, white or black in a desperate attempt for white racist Southerners to hold onto power in Dixie.
Martin Luther King (Oyelowo), already a landmark civil rights activist or, as he is known by those who oppose him, agitator as J. Edgar Hoover (Baker) puts it, approaches President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Wilkinson) to enact legislation that will prevent the kinds of abuses taking place in voter registration in the South but LBJ is less inclined to do that; he has his War on Poverty to consider, which he feels will ultimately be more beneficial to the black community. He has just too much going on to put any energy into King’s demands at the moment, but being the consummate politician he assures the civil rights leader that he will get right on it…in a couple of years. Hoover, on the other hand, wants this whole civil rights thing nipped in the bud. His surveillance of Dr. King has revealed some strain in his marriage to his wife Coretta (Ejogo) and he wants to exploit that, but Johnson prevents it.
With the violence escalating in the South, King knows he can’t wait. He decides to go to Selma, a small town in Alabama whose sheriff Jim Clark (Houston) is particularly mean and stupid and likely to do something that will give King the ammunition he needs. Activists in the Selma area are only too happy to see a national figure like Dr. King arrive on the scene, although John Lewis (James) – a future congressman who is still serving today – and James Foreman (Byers) of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, are suspicious of his motives.
During an evening non-violent march, the protestors are attacked by police. Three of them – Cager Lee (Sanders), his daughter Viola Lee Jackson (Jordan) and his grandson Jimmy Lee Jackson (Stanfield) are chased into a diner. When the police arrive, they make a point of beating the crap out of the old man and his kin. When Jimmy Lee tries to protect them, he is shot in the abdomen and killed. This galvanizes the organizers, leading Rev. James Bevel (Common) to suggest a march from Selma to Montgomery.
This is exactly what Governor George Wallace (Roth) doesn’t want. His right hand man in the state troopers, Colonel Al Lingo (Root) is enlisted to take care of things. In the meantime, in order to prevent the march, the President allows Hoover to carry on with his plans, delivering a tape of Dr. King allegedly having sex with another woman. While the tape is clearly fabricated, she gets King to admit to having had affairs. In order to repair things with his family, King decides to skip the March which is set for March 7, 1965. On that day, Alabama troopers face about 600 marchers and attack them on national television, bloodying the peaceful protesters – some of them, like Amelia Boynton (Toussaint) into unconsciousness – and horrifying a nation.
King, horrified beyond measure, returns to Selma with his wife’s blessing. He knows that the march needs to take place or else it would all be for nothing. He calls on the nation, to people of conscience of all colors to come to Selma and march with him. Many do come, including Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, Michigan activist Viola Liuzzo (Ochs) and Unitarian minister James Reeb (Strong). With a tense stand-off between the forces of racism and the forces of freedom, would the march take place and would change come to the South?
History tells us that the March did finally take place successfully and that the Voter Rights Act of 1965 that Johnson championed would become law (until it was dismantled by the Supreme Court two years ago). Like Titanic, most of us know how the story ends. In the hands of a gifted director, we would feel the tension of those participating because they, unlike us, did not know how the story would end.
DuVernay for the most part accomplishes this. She is aided in this to a very large extent by Oyelowo who delivers a remarkable performance as the late Dr. King. There is a tendency for us to deify certain people – Dr. King, Gandhi, President Lincoln and so forth – to the point that we forget that they are human beings, far from perfect and full of frailties. DuVernay impressively gets that point across that Dr. King, as great a man and courageous a man as he was, also did things that he wasn’t proud of, also made mistakes and also had a playful sense of humor. At times he needed encouragement, phoning Mahalia Jackson in the middle of the night to hear her sing a gospel song so that he might be reassured. At times he wasn’t as strong as his iron-willed wife Coretta was. Oyelowo captures these moments and makes the man relatable to all of us.
In fact most of the cast is impressive although Wilkinson is miscast as LBJ. The LBJ I remember was a force of nature and larger than life and Wilkinson makes him more of a backrooms conniver, which he also was but there was a charisma to him that Wilkinson doesn’t capture. Many who knew the late President have complained that the film does an injustice to his memory in its portrayal of him as obstructive and unsupportive which history tells us he was not, but this isn’t the LBJ story.
It’s not even Dr. King’s story, although he naturally dominates the screen time here. It is a story for all of us, about the tribulations of the Civil Rights activists and what they actually went through to get the rights we take for granted today. It also is a stark reminder of how far we have yet to go, with events in Ferguson, Missouri mentioned pointedly in the movie’s post-credits Oscar-nominated song and parallels to modern oppression of the African American community.
Near the end we see footage purportedly of the actual March with some of it archival, although we mostly see celebrity marchers like Davis and Belafonte. Due to the rights to Dr. King’s speeches being owned by DreamWorks for a Steven Spielberg movie about the Civil Rights era that has not yet come to fruition, we don’t get to hear the actual words of Dr. King’s speeches; instead, DuVernay had to rewrite them so that they were in the style of his oratory but not his actual words. Shame on DreamWorks for not allowing the film to use the words inspiring to so many.
This is one of the better movies of the Holiday Awards season and it justly received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Some are moaning about DuVernay not receiving a nomination for Best Director but truth be told those that did receive the nomination also deserved to be nominated; what separated the five films that got the nod and this one are essentially splitting hairs; to my mind, she had a tendency to be a bit ham-handed in some of the activism scenes with swelling strings to the point that you couldn’t hear the dialogue but were supposed to feel inspired. It is a bit manipulative and could have been handled better. She should have trusted the material to bring out those feelings without hitting us in the head with them.
Nitpicking aside, this should be mandatory viewing for all of us who think that the need for activism has ended. We should all understand what was endured by those who fought for the rights of African-Americans and continue to be endured. Freedom is not given, it must be fought for and so many continue to fight. The legacy of Selma is with us still and should inspire all of us to rise up and support those who still need to shine the light on practices that should outrage all Americans – but still doesn’t. We shall overcome indeed, but we haven’t yet.
REASONS TO GO: MLK is humanized here. Captures the scope of the march and the events surrounding it. About damn time there was a movie about Selma.
REASONS TO STAY: Not sure about the LBJ portrayal. Could have used archival footage better.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some disturbing violence of defenseless people being beaten, some brief strong language, adult themes and some suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Free screenings of the film were made available to 275,000 high school and middle school students.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10