There are few movies that should be required viewing. Most movies are merely candy we consume quickly and forget. But there comes a time when a movie rises above those confectionary tomes and becomes something much more. Selma is such a movie.
In the film, which depicts the march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery in 1965, we see not only Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) but also those that supported him in his determined effort to give voting rights to all citizens.
The story begins with King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. We see a man who does not like having to wear the ascot required for the occasion and how tenderly his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), encourages him to follow the etiquette required.
But the narrative switches quickly to a church back in the South. A group of children are walking down the stairs. Suddenly, a bomb goes off and the church is gone, as well as the lives of five little girls.
Then the scene switches to an African-American woman (Oprah Winfrey) attempting to register to vote in Selma. She fills out the form and presents it to the registrar. He proceeds to grill her on the Constitution, asking her to recite the preamble. She gets it right. He then he asks how many county district court judges there are in Alabama. She gets that right. Finally he asks her to name them all. That turns her away.
These scenes set the focus of the movie. On the one hand, Martin Luther King is recognized as a world leader and is given one of the world’s highest honors. On the other hand, in the South during the 1960s and before, Martin Luther King is just another black person with no rights and in danger every day.
The movie follows the decision to make Selma the focus of King’s work to bring voting rights to blacks. In a scene with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), King makes it clear that in the South blacks cannot vote and because they cannot vote they do not find justice. The law only allows registered votes to serve on juries and because blacks cannot vote they never get to serve. This means that whites can treat blacks any way they choose and there are no repercussions.
Within the context of the larger story are several subplots. One is King’s humanity. We see a leader full of doubts and anxieties. While in jail with Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), King tells him how tired he is of the fight for civil rights. He’s wearied from all the trials and tribulations endured over the years. Yet Abernathy tells King to keep his eyes on the prize and quotes Matthew 6:25-27. Abernathy’s word from the Lord becomes an encouragement to go on.
Late one night, King calls the home of Mahalia Jackson (Ledisi Jackson). He tells her he needs to hear the voice of God. Jackson sings to him and calms his soul.
Another important subplot is the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson. During an unsanctioned march, a grandfather (Cager Lee), his daughter (Viola Davis) and his grandson, Jimmie Lee (Keith Stanfield) get confronted by police. After being chased away from the march by the Alabama Highway Patrol, the three seek refuge in a restaurant. The patrolmen come into the restaurant and begin to beat them. One of the patrolmen pulls his gun and kills Jimmie Lee.
King stands before the congregation at the funeral and tells them that the patrolman did not kill Jimmie Lee alone. He declares that anyone who allowed this to happen and did not raise their voice is responsible. The viewer is reminded that being passive is just as bad as being active.
One of the problems raised by those who have seen Selma is that President Johnson is not seen as helpful. His role seems to be borderline indifference. Johnson looks to be a politician first and not wanting to push through the law King wanted. History says otherwise. Because of this, many feel the movie to be flawed.
I found that to be a minute concern in the larger scope of the story. Many historical movies have “bent” history to tell their story. This movie is no different. And it does not take away the power of the narrative.
I believe the director, Ava DuVernay, made a decision to tell the story of isolation King went through, yet how there were those around him who worked hard to keep him moving forward. The drama of the movie is how King had to fight not only the system, but himself to do what he felt led to do.
That said, every American needs to see this movie, and not just for the history or an interpretation of it. We need to see it because it reminds us from where we have come and how far we need to journey onward. The headlines from Ferguson and New York inform us that our nation has yet to make it where all are equal and all are thought to be the same.
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language.
Directed by Ava DuVernay
Written by Paul Webb
With: David Oyelowo (Martin Luther King Jr.), Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King), Oprah Winfrey (Annie Lee Cooper), Tom Wilkinson (President Lyndon Johnson), Colman Domingo (Ralph Abernathy)