SELMA (2014)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Ava DuVernay
Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Common, Tim Roth
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 99% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A chronicle of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.

In one of the special features on the Selma Blu-ray, Oprah Winfrey, one of the film’s producers and co-stars, says that Selma is the first feature film with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the central figure.  (She is presumably not counting TV movies or miniseries.)  There have been one or two other films where King appears as a “side” character, but never as the star of the film.

I’m not exactly sure what that means, but I found that tidbit of information fascinating, especially after watching Selma, which carries all the cinematic heft of any Oliver Stone biopic.  For example, I never knew there were two previous attempts to make the iconic march from Selma to Birmingham, some fifty miles away.  The first attempt, at which King wasn’t present, was violently turned away by local police with batons, tear gas, and honest-to-God bullwhips.  The second attempt, this time with many white participants, mostly clergy, was aborted by King himself after he had second thoughts about asking people to potentially lay down their lives for the cause.

That right there is indicative of far more conflict than I ever thought existed in the mind of Dr. King, played with poise and pent-up energy by David Oyelowo.  In my mind’s eye, King never wavered.  He was always 100% sure of his actions because his cause was just.  But, surprise, he was also a human being who was clearly affected by the injuries – and fatalities – sustained by the folks who were marching for that cause.  Selma brought that dimension home to me in a potent, well-made film.

The beginning of the movie sets the tone poetically and tragically.  After a scene with Dr. King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his civil rights activism, we are shown the truth of the situation in the American South in the mid-60s.  A black woman tries to register to vote in Selma and is turned away by a racist registrar.  In Birmingham, a bomb goes off at the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four young girls.  When King arrives in Selma to organize a protest, he is greeted in a hotel lobby by a friendly-sounding white man who proceeds to punch him in the face.  King even meets opposition from a separate civil-rights group in Selma who are uncomfortable with how most out-of-state protesters march for King, not necessarily for the issues.

Nor is King portrayed as the perfect husband to his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo, who incidentally also played Coretta Scott King in a 2001 HBO movie, Boycott).  Their home life is troubled right from the get-go.  That’s a factor that I learned about years and years ago, but it’s still something that takes a little getting used to.

No one likes to hear that great men were human, too.  We want our heroes, whomever they might be, to be spotless.  Selma doesn’t shy away from the less flattering, more human side of Dr. King.  After the FBI taps his phones, they send an audio recording to Coretta with the sounds of two people having sex.  Martin listens in dismay but insists to Coretta that’s not him on the tape.  She agrees with him (“I know what you sound like, Martin.”), but you get the idea that she’s still upset that this kind of thing would be an issue.

I loved the scenes where King is invited to the Oval Office to speak directly to then-president Lyndon B. Johnson, who desperately tries to get King to back off Selma.  Johnson wants what every President in history has always wanted: a second term.  King reminds him that, if he would simply pass a law removing any and all voting restrictions, he would win a second term in a landslide…thanks to the black vote.  Johnson urges King to wait, King urges Johnson to act, and they make little progress for most of the film.

I am no historian, but I have no doubt that Selma is at least as accurate as Nixon or JFK or any other big-budget historical film.  That is, mostly true.  When it comes to film, I’m a big believer in the credo: “Don’t let facts get in the way of the truth.”  If Selma were to show each and every incident that led to that march, I’d still be watching the movie because it would be 10 hours long.  I feel that the movie captures exactly what needed to be captured and did it in such a way that not only was I entertained, but I also learned some things I didn’t know.  (I never knew about the death of a white protester, for example.  Or about the “night march” that occurred somewhere between the first two attempts, and which also resulted in someone’s death.)

After having just watched movies like Whiplash or The Prince of Egypt that got me genuinely emotionally invested, so that their finales had me floating a few inches above my sofa, I must be honest and say that the finale of Selma did not quite inspire that same reaction in me.  It was compelling to see the march finally taking place, especially when intercut with shots of the actual marchers making their way to Birmingham.  I enjoyed King’s speech on the steps of the capital building (although I learn from IMDb trivia that director DuVernay allegedly reworked some of the speeches to make them more cinematic).  I thought it worked well as a climax to the film.  But honestly, I wanted to see a little more of the march itself.

I suppose it could be argued that the march was not quite the point of the film.  Selma highlights the struggle more than the victory.  It demonstrates the terrible hurdles and living conditions faced by black Americans during those dark days.  Have things improved since then?  Well, I’d say things have evolved into something different.  Some things change more easily than others.

The struggle continues.

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