Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014)
In 1965, a year after the passage by the U.S. Congress of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 – which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race – the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., led a march from Selma, Alabama, to the state’s capital of Montgomery to protest widespread restrictions on access to voting for African-Americans in the South. The President at the time, Lyndon Baines Johnson, while a champion of civil rights for African-Americans, wished, after 1964, to turn his attention to the “war on poverty” (a not unworthy goal, for sure). King, however, believed that civil rights without voting rights was an empty triumph, and so continued to push his agenda to allow African-Americans the same access to the polls as had whites, organizing a demonstration in Alabama, a state – led at the time by the virulently racist George Wallace – particularly infamous for its refusal to allow blacks to vote.
Though King and his colleagues at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) always engaged in non-violent practices in their protests, they were met, initially, by violent reprisals from the police, led by Sheriff Jim Clark. Soon, however, thanks to negative media coverage of those reprisals, as well as federal intervention, the marchers were allowed to proceed to Montgomery, where they arrived, 54 miles and 5 days later, on March 25. Once there, King gave a rousing speech, optimistically stating that it would not be long before blacks would enjoy the same voting rights as white, and in August 6 of that year, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which effectively removed many of the restrictions on voting that had long been applied in the South to prevent blacks from voting.
This is the story told in the powerful, necessary and extremely entertaining new film by Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere), and never has it been a more vital time to tell that story. Less than two years ago, the United States Supreme Court gutted the very legislation that King, his SCLC colleagues, the many protesters, as well as Johnson, worked so hard to pass into law, and since 2010, 22 states have passed new voter restriction laws (all in the name of junk-science fears about voter fraud). It is time to take stock, America, and decide, once more, what kind of country we wish to be. Let Selma, anchored by a brilliant performance from British actor David Oyelowo (Lee Daniels’ The Butler), be your guide. Ignore the criticism that some have leveled about its portrayal of Johnson (about as valid as those fears about voter fraud) – who is no villain in the movie, just a man with different priorities than King – and make the film a must-see for you, your family and friends in the new year. And then do everything in your power to make sure we don’t continue, in 2015, rolling back the clock to 1964.
Beyond the important civil-rights lesson, Selma is a wonderful ensemble portrait of how politics works, much as was Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film about the 1864 passage of the 13th amendment. Yes, King is at the center of the story, but he is hardly alone. The other members of the SCLC, as well as young students in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and protesters both black and white, are essential actors in the drama, and DuVernay does not ignore them. Indeed, they are portrayed by such fine actors as Wendell Pierce (Bunk on “The Wire“), Oprah Winfrey (also one of the movie’s producers, along with Brad Pitt), Tessa Thompson (Dear White People), Carmen Ejogo (The Purge: Anarchy), and many others. Tom Wilkinson (Belle) – always good – as Johnson brings out our 36th President’s humanity without ignoring his well-documented racism (which makes his role as civil-rights hero even more remarkable), and Tim Roth (“Lie to Me“) seems to have a lot of fun as the smirking George Wallace (the movie needs at least one villain to hate).
But in spite of the impressive cast, this really is Oyelowo’s movie. His King is a man possessed of many gifts – intelligence, political acumen, charisma, eloquence – who is nevertheless plagued by the same demons that plague all humans. He is not a saint, and not perfect. He is a human man. The movie opens with a charming scene between King and his wife, Coretta (Ejogo), just before King is to receive the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, and the casual and sweet flirtation they share tells us right away that this is a movie about people, not icons. Which is why it is a great film. Originally scheduled to open in Baltimore on January 9, Selma‘s release was moved up to January 1. See it today.