Selma is the story of a movement. The film chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition. The epic march from Selma to Montgomery culminated in President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant victories for the civil rights movement. Director Ava DuVernay’s Selma tells the real story of how the revered leader and visionary Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and his brothers and sisters in the movement prompted change that forever altered history.
It’s hard to believe that Selma is the first film to feature Martin Luther King Jr. as the main character, but it’s true. Previous attempts have been knocked down by the King family, who block the usage of King’s speeches here. Perhaps it’s for the best, though. Even without King’s words, Selma is a stirring, uncannily timely film.
Rather than going for the standard sweeping biopic, Selma provides a very specific look at a legendary figure during one specific part of his life: the three month period that marked the Selma to Montgomery march. Outside of a few opening scenes that show King’s Nobel Prize ceremony and the Birmingham church bombing to set up the state of things, the film stays there. It’s a method that works. Rather than giving a cursory overview at the life of King, Selma gets to dig deeper into the man and the movement.
As I mentioned before, the film doesn’t use any of King’s speeches, which is for the best. King is mostly remembered for his words, and any attempt to recreate those speeches verbatim would almost undoubtedly fall short. The speeches that the general public remember are idealistic. Selma offers a better view of the man as an activist, and the ways nonviolent protesting can provoke a reaction.
The focus of the Selma to Montgomery march was on achieving the right to vote for minorities in the country, particularly in the South where states enacted various methods, such as literacy tests and poll taxes, to keep blacks from registering to vote. There’s a parallel that points to current attempts in various states to enact voter ID laws that significantly affect black voters, as well as other minorities, more than white voters. That alone would be interesting enough to make Selma mandatory viewing.
What puts it over the top, though, is the parallel that can be drawn between the violent reaction from an all-white police force in Selma in 1965 and the similar reaction from a predominantly white police force in Ferguson in 2014. At a time where it seems like more attention is finally being directed at the very real problems that plague America’s justice system, it’s chilling to see exactly how little things have changed in 50 years.
The film also points to the ridiculous nature of asking people to wait for their freedoms. With the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, President Lyndon B. Johnson demands King wait on tackling voting rights issues, since it conflicts with other legislation Johnson wants passed. The ensuing marches in Selma are set not just as a way to shake the American people as a whole, but as a way to apply pressure to Johnson to make unencumbered voting a reality.
As far as being a film about Martin Luther King Jr., the film doesn’t work to portray him as a saint. On the contrary, attempts are made by the government to bring down King, including an audio tape delivered to Coretta Scott King that points to his extramarital affairs. He’s also questioned by those he works with over various points, most notably his decision to stand down during the second attempt at a march. He’s even shown doubting the power of his own words and actions. King isn’t infallible – he’s human.
Selma is a film where everything works brilliantly together, and while I’ve focused primarily on the story, I have to acknowledge the tremendous work of the cast. David Oyelowo in particular shines as King, nailing the general presence of King without coming across like a mere copy of the man. The film’s direction, meanwhile, deserves every accolade imaginable. Ava DuVernay may not have a lot of credits to her name, but she’s the perfect choice for bringing this story to the screen.
I can’t think of a more timely or necessary film to hit screens in recent memory than Selma. It’s easy to relegate Martin Luther King Jr. to being simply an historical figure, but if the last few months have proven anything, it’s that America as a country isn’t as far removed from 50 years ago as we’d like to believe. Not even close.