Selma, the new film about the historic protests in Selma, Alabama, opens with a jarring shift. The audience is taken abruptly from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. accepting his Nobel Peace Prize to the shock and horror of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing. Although the bombing occurred in 1963, nearly a year and a half before King’s Nobel Prize acceptance, I think the juxtaposition of the two moments sets the tone for the whole film. If you thought Selma would simply be a celebration of the non-violent ways of Martin Luther King, Jr., you were wrong. Instead of focusing on King’s famous words (although he does give several moving speeches), it paints a bigger picture of the many men, women, and children whose passion, sacrifice, and pain demanded change.
Selma covers the 1965 events leading up to the historic march between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama to put pressure on President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass legislation that would establish and enforce protections against tactics that kept African Americans from registering to vote. The film uses a talented and extensive cast to depict the work of grassroots organizations to lay the groundwork for the protests even before Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) come to town. I think one of the stronger aspects of the film is the way that it engages with the complicated history of the Civil Rights Movement in a way that opens the door for a lot of questions and further learning. Although King is the most prominent figure in the film, the story also includes the work of community organizers such as Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson) and Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint), as well as the work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who had been at work in Selma and on the Freedom Rides for years before the events in the film. By including the mixed feelings SNCC members have about King and his cohort, as well as an appearance by Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), the film incorporates a diversity of perspectives on the protests and the larger movement.
To a lesser extent, Selma also focuses on the personal struggle of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a leader and a man. The film gives glimpses into problems between him and Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) resulting from the pressure and sacrifice his work entailed, as well as fears he has about his own fate. David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Dr. King is riveting. The resemblance and mannerisms are uncanny as well, especially when Oyelowo is not shown head-on, but in the background of a scene.
To my eye, what makes Selma such a powerful experience is the way that director Ava DuVernay captures the sense of community in the protest and the organizations staging them. The audience is thrown into the middle of ongoing activist work and asked to pick up on the dynamics between and within the existing communities. Then, in Selma, particular faces show up repeatedly without any introduction. Cager Lee (Henry G. Sanders), Viola Lee Jackson (Charity Jordan), and Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) appear throughout the first half of the film, building up to Jimmie Lee Jackson’s murder, which sparks the march to Montgomery. Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), who is first shown being denied her right to register to vote, shows up in each protest. Civil Rights martyrs Viola Liuzzo (Tara Ochs) and James Reeb (Jeremy Strong) make appearances after Dr. King issues a call for people to join the march. Even people like Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and President Johnson (who is depicted as dragging his heels a lot) are treated with nuance. The result of weaving all these stories together, often without explaining who the people are, is a portrait of how much collective effort and courage was needed, while also paying homage to those who died for the cause.
While the sense of community in the film is beautiful, it also deepens the pain of the violence while treating the people who suffered such violence with love and respect. Those who suffer at the hands of state troopers and other civilians are not just stock characters, as can often be the case in movies. Instead, they are realized people whose pain is more than set dressing.
For its complicated depiction of history and its amazing ensemble cast, I rate Selma 5/5 stars.
Selma was written by Paul Webb and directed by Ava DuVernay. It runs 128 minutes and is rated PG-13 for violence and strong language.
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