I was one day short of my tenth birthday when Alabama state troopers attacked unarmed civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma, Alabama. Growing up seven hundred miles from Selma, in a village where the nearest African-Americans lived thirty miles away, I paid no attention to that news. I do not remember seeing anything about the attack on TV, or in our local paper. I do remember the five dollars I got for my birthday, and the chocolate cake my mother baked me (she made the very best). If I thought anything at all about the civil rights movement and its leader, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I believed they were all Communist, because that’s what most of the people I knew believed. I had no real conception of what a Communist was, but I knew Stalin and Khrushchev were bad men, and I figured Martin Luther King must be, too.
Recent news articles, quoting public opinion polls from 1965, showed that a large percentage of white Americans, northern and southern, believed the same thing at that time about Dr. King and the civil rights movement. Judging from news stories in the past few years, that belief still has its adherents.
Premiering just before the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma-Montgomery march, Ava DuVernay’s Selma is a vivid, tightly focused account of the march and the events surrounding it, leading up to Congressional passage of the Voting Rights Act. When I say “vivid,” I mean it. DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb place us right in the middle of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, giving the audience a close-up view of the dilemmas faced by leaders and followers of the movement, and the persecution—one could justly say “atrocities”—meted out to civil rights workers by representatives of the law.
Inevitably, Selma has been a lightning rod for political controversy, both for and against the movie. The campaign against the movie surged just before the awards season, when Joseph A. Califano Jr., chief assistant for domestic affairs in the White House of President Lyndon B. Johnson, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post denouncing Selma as a calculated slander against Johnson. “Selma was LBJ’s idea,” Califano wrote, and because the movie portrayed otherwise, it should be disqualified from receiving any awards. The wave of advocacy for the movie came with the announcement of this year’s Academy Award nominations, of which Selma received only two (Best Picture and Best Song). DuVernay and others, including Andrew Young, defended the film’s historical accuracy. The assertion that the Selma march was the brainchild of LBJ, and not MFK, they said, was itself a slander.
Available evidence shows that Selma does take some historical liberties, but no more than other historical films such as Lincoln. Historians suggest that the relationship between King and Johnson was friendlier and more respectful than the movie portrays, but also that Johnson really did want to advance his War on Poverty before he tackled the Voting Rights Act, which he referred to privately as “a Kennedy bill.” Johnson also really did order J. Edgar Hoover to keep tabs on King and other civil rights leaders, just as he ordered Hoover to monitor the activities of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups. (Hoover needed no prompting in either case.)
“He (Johnson) dedicated himself to eradicating the Ku Klux Klan and finding the killers of civil rights activists, while also working diligently, and perhaps illegally, to suppress the efforts of grassroots civil rights activists,” wrote Kent B. Germany, associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina and a research fellow at the University of Virginia, in the introduction to his study of Johnson’s presidential tapes. Johnson’s political maneuvering on the Voting Rights Act proved successful in the short term, Germany said, but in the long run led to disillusionment from civil rights activists and a backlash from white racists, creating the situation we have today.
In any case, the bulk of the action in Selma takes place in Alabama instead of Washington, and DuVernay and Webb throw us into it violently. We are lulled by the opening sequence of a nervous King (David Oyelowo) preparing to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. But this—what would be the final, triumphal moment in a conventional movie—is followed immediately by the murder of four girls in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. (The bombing actually occurred several months before the Nobel Prize ceremony, but it makes impeccable, and tragic, dramatic sense to show it after.) Then we see a more everyday act of terrorism, when Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey, whose Harpo Films produced Selma) makes the latest in a series of attempts to register to vote in Selma. The surly registrar orders Annie Lee to recite the preamble to the Constitution. She does. He asks her how many district judges there are in Alabama. She answers correctly—sixty-eight.
“Name them,” the registrar says.
The next thing we see is the look of sorrow on Annie Lee’s face as the registrar stamps her registration form with a big “DENIED.”
From here, Selma focuses with laser-like intensity on the march. We see the planning sessions with King and his associates Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo) and John Lewis (Stephan James); we see the quarrels between different grassroots organizations, as to whether nonviolence is an effective tactic, or even if the march is a good idea at all.
Above all, we see the march itself, and here the film clinches its claim to greatness. Washington Post blogger Alyssa Rosenberg correctly identified Selma as a horror film at heart. I would say it is also a war film, except that one side in the conflict is not armed. Black Americans can never forget that Alabama state troopers, only fifty years ago, chased peaceful marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on horseback, clubs and bullwhips in hand. After watching Selma, one would hope that white Americans will never forget it, either. Selma brings home the fact that the legislative and law enforcement communities in many states treated a large proportion of their citizens as enemies, to be hunted down if they protested their oppression in the slightest. DuVernay brings this home in the scene where an innocent black family, chased by police, escapes into a restaurant, only to be followed there with deadly force. The writing, direction, acting and editing of this scene, as with many other scenes in Selma, build both the tension and the tragedy to unbearable heights.
No review of Selma would be complete without praise for the acting, starting with David Oyelowo. Oyelowo’s voice is a reasonable match for King’s, and in his oratorical scenes Oyelowo captures King’s cadences, as well as his fire. Oyelowo is equally impressive in the film’s more intimate scenes; he portrays King as both a skilled negotiator and a truly decent, Christian man, steadfast in his cause but agonized at the thought that he might be leading his followers to their doom.
Carmen Ejogo is every bit as excellent as Oyelowo, playing Coretta Scott King as a woman whose unflappable dignity masked constant and justified fear. Ejogo plays her big scene—in which Coretta confronts her husband on a delicate personal matter—perfectly.
The large cast—mostly in very small roles—cannot be faulted. Tom Wilkinson is properly shrewd and intimidating as LBJ, giving the audience a textbook lesson in what it was like to receive “The Johnson Treatment.” The audience can only cheer when Wilkinson applies that treatment to Tim Roth, playing an appropriately ratlike George Wallace.
Selma is not so much a biopic of Martin Luther King as it is a portrait of him at a crucial time in his life, and in the history of the movement he led. Although the Selma-to-Montgomery march ended in triumph, it did not end the danger, either to King or to those who followed him. Legislators and jurists are once again acting to abolish or weaken the rights that Dr. King and others won with their own blood. Selma should help all Americans to remember their sacrifice, and what they fought for—even little boys such as I once was.