With David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, Tom Wilkinson.
Selma focuses on the actions surrounding the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, actions that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Until then, the right to vote had been denied to all black citizens through racist policies. Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey)’s repeated attempts to pass the impossible tests and inane questions make it plain how Jim Crow worked.
The movie opens with Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) and Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) in Oslo where King is to receive the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize in a formal ceremony. Coretta has to help Martin tie his tie into an ascot knot. He is uncomfortable in such fancy dress. Style continues to be the subject as the scene shifts to Birmingham, Alabama, where some girls are talking about Coretta’s hair on their way to church. The suddenness of the violence is extremely effective. DuVernay uses violence in the movie only a few times, but each time with the force that made it clear how overdue justice was.
Southern Christian Leadership Conference were largely priests and deeply religious believers. As the march gained traction, through setbacks and legal injunctions, and further murders of innocent people by police, King stalled the march after praying for guidance, and decided that another delay was the wisest course. It is hard to know whether this was intentional theater prompted by an agreement made with the authorities, or whether the prayer was genuine and his decision made by divine grace. King’s genius was to combine his sense of divine mission with his oratorical power, his finely honed intellect, and his patient persistence to make constant progress.
When he was in jail with Ralph Abernathy and discouraged, Abernathy was able to lift his spirits by reciting a passage from the New Testament:
“Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?” King replies by citing the passage quickly with joy –Matthew 6:26! The solidarity of the religious is palpable.
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leaders John Lewis and James Foreman were not at first welcoming to King’s group in Selma since they had done all the advance work of trying to get people to register to vote. Lewis broke with Foreman and marched with King.
How lonely King was though. He had to live with constant death threats, and surveillance by the FBI who deliberately tried to create tension in his marriage. His wife received death threats not just on her husband but on her children as well.
The treatment of Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) is not accurate, and makes him out to be more villainous than he was. Still I like the way Ava DuVernay, the director, defends herself by explaining that she did not make a documentary. For historical accuracy of the civil rights movement, we have Eyes on the Prize. Its footage of King speaking in Selma is more thrilling. DuVernay has created a compelling drama that is not just a textbook in civil rights. So few Hollywood directors are women. Compared with Oliver Stone’s JFK, Selma bears more historical truth and for direct quotes, it is full of transcripts from the FBI files.
Selma is a very powerful movie.