“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Selma tells the story of that continuing fight for freedom. The movie is a monumental triumph for director Ava DuVernay, who, with every frame, seems to be fighting along with her heroes, negotiating, demonstrating, resisting. She has crafted a story here out of real parts, and in doing so has shaped very real people in very real situations. This is not a biopic that draws attention to events that must happen, or the likenesses the actors share with their real-world namesakes. It forms them with nothing but love, then observes with a teary eye as they fight passionately for truth and justice in a society where “the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination”.
King is played by David Oyelowo, who manages to accomplish a rare feat, one Daniel Day-Lewis or (more recently) Eddie Redmayne has mastered: He retreats wholly and unequivocally into the soul of this historical figure to the point where they trade lives. I was aware that it was Oyelowo acting as King, but I failed to see him. So resolute is his command of the role that in moments of both quiet and anger he remains reserved, dignified, majestic. He fights for justice in this film; that the good people of The Academy have, through some strain of madness, overlooked him as a contender for Best Actor is a grave injustice.
Oyelowo presents King as a man of deep conflict, soothed ever so slightly by the power of belief and faith. He was an advocate for non-violence, trusting that marching and peaceful protests and small acts of civil disobedience were enough to cause shifts and fractures in the tectonic plates of white elitism.
He wasn’t wrong. Rosa Parks, in Montgomery, AL, 1955, failed to give up her seat in the “coloured section” of the bus to a white man, defiance that later warranted her arrest. Her steadfast refusal essentially paved the foundations for what was to become the Civil Rights Movement, led, of course, by King, and culminated in the signing of new laws and King’s tragic assassination at the Lorraine Motel in 1968.
Selma focuses on King’s march against discrimination in the voting booths (1964-1965), which at first might not seem like a priority. But there is a scene in The White House that opens up the right to vote and reveals a trail of civil disadvantages that come with not being able to.
King explains to President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) that in the South, black girls and boys are being murdered and beaten by white supremacists, who never face trial. The ones who do are never convicted because the judges are white and the juries are white. In order for a black civilian to be a juror he or she must be registered as a voter. The ability to vote, therefore, represents the ability to live.
LBJ is also depicted as a man of conflict, torn between his duties as a politician and a humanitarian. I learn that the real LBJ was not so blockheaded, that he fully supported King and delayed little (why was there the need to march then? The answer is obvious). DuVernay has taken some liberties here, which is her right. She makes LBJ an honourable man clouded by racial blindness. He wants to pass the bill allowing blacks to vote, but is handicapped by indecision and apprehension. He is a good man, but for the blacks, he’s not good enough.
Then there is George Wallace (Tim Roth, brilliant), the scheming, racist governor of Alabama who, in his tireless climb to success, is willing to step over the president and make him look like a fool in his own office. His conversation with LBJ about the problems brewing in Selma is written with a cruel sharpness that underpins both men’s stature as leading white politicians in a country that is trying to cover up its ethnic diversities.
Alas, the atrocities committed against the blacks in the south were catastrophic. Selma, like 12 Years A Slave (2013), makes it very easy for us to identify with the blacks, which you could argue is unfair. Is it unfair? Is it unfair that blacks really did succumb to slavery and were denied voting, economic, educational, housing, medical, and occupational rights? Is it unfair that they were beaten and killed for no other reason than that they were born without milky pale skin? You’re damn right it is. The discrimination was so nonsensical that no matter how you spin it it will always come to rest on the ignorance and stupidity of the white folk. Yes, stupidity. Their mindsets and actions were stupid.
Selma, then, is an important film. It shows us the flaws in narrow-minded thinking without coming across as a sermon. It doesn’t sanction black supremacy but exalts the efforts of those who had the courage to stand up to a nation (region) of hate. It is a movie of profound humanity. Yes, like 12 Years A Slave, it is a warning for whites. It is history for blacks. For the rest of us, me included, it is a lesson on life.
Best Moment | The first failed crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. What ridiculous violence. What courage put on display. It moved me to tears.
Worst Moment | Nope.