In the South, African Americans were threatened with ongoing violence and prevented from legally registering to vote. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. met with President Lyndon B. Johnson to ask for federal legislation to address these issues, but his requests were set aside. The African American leadership, led by Dr. King, focused on its next course of action. An unsuccessful drive to register black voters that began in Selma, Alabama, turned violent. Activists saw this as the central point in drawing national attention to the inequality in voting and civil rights in the South. A peaceful protest march was planned, and Dr. King headed to Selma, Alabama, to be accompanied by Annie Lee Cooper, Ralph Abernathy, Diane Nash, Andrew Young, John Lewis, and many other activists.
In the movie, Selma, director Ava DuVernay brings us a story that vividly explores Dr. King’s (played by David Oyelowo) fight to bring voting rights to African Americans in the South. Selma documents Dr. King’s movements, and the eventual march, to draw attention to the difficulties faced by black voters and the need for voting rights legislation. Cinematically, Du Vernay does a fantastic job of weaving together many smaller stories, protests, and meetings that will draw supporters to the cause, and ultimately, the Selma to Montgomery march — a march that would eventually change the future for African Americans.
A major theme throughout the film is nonviolence in the face of adversity. The activists encounter the brutal deaths of innocent people, violent opposition from then governor of Alabama, George Wallace, and difficulties collaborating with other groups. Although Selma focuses on the logistics involved in planning a movement, it also portrays the personal lives of the characters, showing the impact of the movement on the activists and their families, from the conflict in Dr. King’s relationship with his wife, to the deaths of young black children in the community. The intertwining of these various situations creates a tense yet inspirational atmosphere for the film.
David Oyelowo is fantastic in the role of Dr. King. He captures Dr. King’s energy and passion in each scene, delivering his lines with power. Every character is unique and portrayed with so much depth, it makes it difficult to choose a favorite. The acting in Selma is phenomenal. The struggles of African Americans are portrayed so realistically it broke my heart, and made me burn with anger to see such injustice.
Although Selma was praised overall, the portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson) received some criticism. Many historians accused the filmmakers of their one-dimensional portrayal of Johnson. Historians claim that this portrayal is far from the truth; that, in fact, President Johnson supported Dr. King’s movement and eventually signed into law the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act; both were partners in the civil rights movement, although not without disagreement. Despite the fact that Johnson’s character helped create an interesting plot twist, his depiction can be looked upon as flawed in the movie.
Selma focuses on the movements in Selma, Alabama, and every event is covered in detail. The in-depth coverage of conversations tended to slow down the pace of the plot. The back and forth between action and conversation disrupted the flow of the film in many instances, and, for me, was a drawback. At the same time, the portrayal of the relationships between individuals was a more realistic representation of the civil rights movement than only showing protests and marches. The civil rights movement involved intense planning on the part of many people. DuVernay creates a storyline that keeps the audience hooked on the tension throughout the film.
Selma has great relevance today. Two weeks after the film was finished, a young black man, Eric Garner, died when New York City police placed him in a choke-hold. A little over a month after Garner’s death, another young black man, Michael Brown, was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri. These events sparked protests around the nation. Selma premiered at a time when our attention focused on problems we thought we had solved. By showing similarities between Ferguson and the civil rights movement, Selma draws attention to today’s problems. DuVernay and Oyelowo noticed these similarities in the scenes they had filmed for Selma and the photographs of Ferguson.
“We wanted to make a film that felt relevant and didn’t feel like a historical drama,” says Oyelowo.
The award-winning song “Glory,” written for the film by John Legend and Common, clearly references Ferguson. In a way, this film directly relates to the current movement for black rights. By emphasizing the unity of African American people in the face of adversity, Selma empowers African Americans to unite once again to fight for civil justice.
I give Selma 4 out of 5 stars for outstanding acting, storyline, and relevance. However, the constant shifting from conversation to action slowed the film at some points. Additionally, DuVernay tackled too many aspects of the Selma march; the depiction of the political and personal sides of the march complicated and slowed the pace of the film.
This powerful film portrays the hardships African Americans faced in the 1960s, and comments on the adversity they face today. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for inspiration. However, I caution that Selma is an intense film: violent scenes and discriminatory language might make the film inappropriate for young audiences. Selma is about justice and strength and is a film you should not miss.
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