I will admit, my knowledge of American History has some holes. I’m working on it. I knew that Selma, Alabama was notable during the 1960s because Martin Luther King, Jr. led a march there related to Civil Rights. I did not know much about the particulars before watching Selma this past Monday, which was of course, MLK Day.
The film opens with three distinct scenes meant to bring the viewer up to speed with what was happening in 1964: Dr. King (played by David Oyelowo) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; four little black girls were killed in the Alabama 16th Street Baptist Church bombing set by the Ku Klux Klan; and one Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) tried to register to vote but was denied by the white county registrar in Selma. A few things she had to do as part of the process: recite the Preamble to the Constitution (check), tell the registrar how many county judges there were (check), and then name all sixty-seven of them (are you kidding me?). Needless to say, Annie Lee was denied. Again.
So Dr. King and his supporters think that Selma is the perfect next place to draw attention to their plight: African Americans were being denied the right to vote, mainly in the South, despite passage of the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, guaranteeing that right. Dr. King had also met with President Lyndon Johnson on numerous occasions to ask for his assistance, essentially getting denied each time (“this voting thing is just gonna have to wait”). The President was sensitive to the politics of the matter, and helping King and his supporters was not on the top of his list of priorities (this is one aspect of the film that the director was heavily criticized for- more on that later).
What is immediately apparent at the beginning of Selma is the distinction in tone director Ava DuVernay sets: this is an intimate movie, told from Martin Luther King, The Man’s point of view. We meet Dr. King in his hotel room in Norway before the Nobel ceremony, trying to tie his tie, while running lines of his speech in the mirror. He is unsure of his words; his wife Coretta comes to help him with the tie and reassure him his words are great and that he’ll do fine. This is not Dr. King, The Icon, that we have all grown up learning about. The rest of the film is consistent with this intimate tone: we see Dr. King, I mean Martin, taking out the trash at his house, arguing with his wife, patting his kids on the head as he moves through the dining room on his way to Saving the World. Many times, King expresses doubt about his mission. He looks tired and worn. He even had to sit out the first day of the march because he had a huge fight with his wife. He had to make a “uh, yeah guys? I can’t come today. I’ll be there tomorrow” phone call!
Dr. King’s apparent doubt overshadows much of the film. As he is sitting dejected in a jail cell in Selma, one of his supporters helps pump him up for the task ahead. There is another powerful scene as he and John Lewis chat in a car, and King reveals his hesitancy to do what needs to be done. Lewis, the current Congressman from Georgia’s 5th District who, in 1964, was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a local group working on voting rights who reluctantly join forces with King and his “interlopers”, describes to Dr. King how he heard him speak once, and how he was forever changed by his passion and his words. He essentially tells King, look we have to do this! There’s no turning back now.
These are sides of Martin Luther King that I’ve never seen. Are they all true? Maybe. DuVernay was criticized, when Selma first came out, of taking “poetic license” with some of the historical facts. She maintained she was not making a documentary, but telling a story. I would like to believe these facets of King’s personality are true. It is gratifying to know that maybe even our heroes, who we put on pedestals all the time, had to take out the trash and get in stupid fights with their wives and doubt themselves too.
The other aspect of the film that I enjoyed was seeing the making of the sausage. We get to see the behind the scenes political machinations of Making History. Every one of King’s supporters, and King himself, knew how important their actions and words were. They knew they had to do this right, not only for themselves but for future generations. There were a number of scenes in the film dedicated to how they got to Selma, why they chose Selma, how their marches and speeches would look to the American People on television; it was all quite planned and coordinated. I was a little let down at first, like, awww—this is so calculated—but then realized, it had to be.
For me, there was not one bad performance in this film. Even Oprah, who can sometimes come off quite heavy handed (surprising right?), played Annie Lee Cooper with quiet dignity, but at times understandable over-the-top frustration. David Oyelowo was simply magnificent. He looked and sounded more and more like MLK as the movie progressed. As some of the supporters were hurt or killed throughout the film, Mr. Oyelowo as Dr. King appeared to physically feel the weight of each death; the viewer could see it in his tired, crying eyes, his stooped shoulders. And Tim Roth as Alabama Governor George Wallace? BRILLIANT.
The visual imagery in this film was simply stunning. During each of the scenes depicting protests and the walk across the Pettus Bridge, I was almost physically ill, watching the images of violence. Bradford Young, the cinematographer, did a magnificent job with lighting and tone throughout the film, but particularly during these violent, and very necessary scenes.
I would highly recommend Selma for anyone who wants to learn more about a very painful chapter of our country’s history. It has definitely encouraged me to do more research into the Civil Rights Era and its impact.