Selma is the type of movie where no one moves even when the film is over; as the credit rolled, an eerie stillness came over the theater that no one seemed willing to disturb. Usually half the audience jumps out of their seats as soon as a movie fades to black – myself included – but I had no instinct to do that at Selma. As John Legend and Common’s Golden Globe winning song played, the most appropriate action seemed to be quiet reflection on how far we’ve come, as well as how far we have to go. On how though the events of the movie feel like that of a different time, they also feel very current. Though many people who see Selma are familiar with the history that is depicted, Selma is still a movie that quietly demands your respect and doesn’t feel rehashed. This is due to a stellar performance by David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. and the film’s decision to also focus on the organization that goes into a movement and not just the voting rights marches themselves.
Selma, as the title indicates, focuses on the events that took place in Selma, Alabama in 1965 to protest the institutional barriers that prevented African-Americans from registering to vote. African-Americans were systematically denied access to the voting booth, which not only denied them a voice in their government but that also prevented them from serving on juries. Those seeking to register to vote were additionally subjected to intimidation and physical violence. After failing to get President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to enact federal legislation to address this issue, Martin Luther King, Jr. (Oyelowo) and his group descend on Selma to participate in nonviolence protest to draw attention to the issue, mobilize the people and hopefully force the President’s hand. King’s arrival in Selma is not totally welcomed; not only are Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and many of the local residents and elected officials hostile, but he must also contend with the cold shoulder from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that view King’s arrival as invading their turf. Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) are also upset that King is trying to tell them what to do and alludes to them trying to sow the seeds of marital discord between Martin and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo). Selma is as much about the navigation and logistics of a movement as the big events of the movement, which I think only strengthens the film and provides a fresh perspective and background to these historic moments.
While I have never organized anything as important or large as the events of Selma, I have done my fair share of project management and I appreciated that the film delved into all the things that must be considered and addressed before something like the Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches can happen. Not only are there the basic logistics that must be worked out, but there are a ton of strategic and political considerations that should be taken into account. A march like the one that took place in 1965 doesn’t just happen and the process of pulling something like that off is just as interesting as the march itself. King and his group are not operating in a vacuum and must navigate the many people and groups that are in play. Potential allies may differ on methods (Malcolm X, SNCC) or priorities (President Johnson) and figuring out when to make concessions and when to jeopardize these possible alliances, while not infuriating his core constituency, is a delicate balance that Martin must strike.
This is not to say that the film is a boring tutorial on how a social movement gets things done; thanks to a very talented cast, led by Oyelowo, Selma is a compelling drama even when it swells more on process than outcome. It really is a shame that David Oyelowa was not nominated for his performance because in my mind, he really personifies Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His soaring oratory is powerful and inspiring, despite the fact that the film couldn’t use any of Dr. King’s actual speeches. You’d be forgiven for not realizing that, since the excellent writing and Oyelowo’s transformative performance capture the spirit of King so completely. But there is obviously more to Dr. King than just some powerful preaching and the film does not shy away from depicting King as a flawed and imperfect man. Oyelowo is just as great in the more quiet scenes, when King is troubled or struggling, as he is in giving rousing sermons. The film makes clear that while Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an extraordinary man, he was just a man. He faced criticism within his group and wrestled with the harm in which he was placing many people with his activism. Oyelowo flawlessly handles all facets of King and by humanizing him a bit, makes him all the more impressive a figure. It’s a beautiful and powerful performance; he avoids all the traps of playing a legend like Dr. King and you’d be forgiven for getting so swept up that you momentarily forget that he is acting. The rest of the cast is also top notch – including a nice supporting role by Oprah and the always great Wendell Pierce – but this Oyelowo’s star making vehicle. I can’t wait to see what projects he does next.
As spectacular as the speeches are and as fascinating I found all the behind the scenes organization, the most powerful moments of Selma are the actual acts of protest in the film. The brutalization that the protesters meet in front of the county courthouse and on the march to Montgomery is difficult to watch, but historically accurate. Seeing so much hatred is difficult for me to process, but I also know that still exists in the world. At the same time, it is an uplifting reminder that people did not let the violence they endured dissuade them from a cause that was just. Even though it was fictional, I still found myself tearing up at these scenes – in sadness that only 50 years ago that this type of ignorance was so pervasive and public and in inspiration for all the brave men and women who would not be deterred.
There has been a lot of controversy about the depiction of Lyndon Johnson in Selma, with critics complaining that the movie unfairly paints the President as opposed to the marches and being less than proactive in addressing the issue of voter registration. I have no idea of Johnson’s actual feelings, but even as depicted I don’t think that that Selma hurts LBJ’s legacy. In the film, Johnson agrees the failure of African-Americans to vote is a problem, but wants to hold off addressing it until a later time. I don’t think that makes him a villain, but a realistic politician. It’s an issue of timing, not disagreement. As LBJ says in the movie, he doesn’t have one issue to address, he has hundreds. If anything, I think these scenes show the very real disconnect that sometimes occur between activists and government officials; every activist thinks that their issue is the most important thing, while government officials are often juggling multiple issues and have limited political capital. That may not be what an activist wants to hear, especially with an issue as important as access to the voting booth, but it is a very real hurdle that must be dealt with. Activists are idealists and government officials are often pragmatists, which leads to conflict. I didn’t think LBJ was a monster or a bad guy after Selma; if anything, those scenes made the movie more realistic to me. I also enjoyed that Selma avoids the cliché that other movies about the African-American civil rights movement feel they need to include – the “white savior” scene where the true success comes once white people get involved. There are allies of all races in Selma, but this is a movie that rightfully focuses on what the African-American community accomplished on its own. Courting the public opinion of white middle America is part of King’s game plan, but it is a tool in their strategy, not the ultimate goal. It’s a little distinction, but it’s important that Selma makes it.
I thoroughly enjoyed Selma, despite the difficulty in watching some scenes. It’s an important part of this country’s history that deserves to be revisited and contains some spectacular performances from David Oyelowo and the rest of the cast. By delving into some of the issues that surrounded the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march, the actual event is actually elevated and the viewer has a more well-rounded view of how things happened. In addition, the film’s willingness to look at King’s shortcomings results in a more realistic movie. Selma is a film that is definitely worth watching. It’s message is just as important today as it was fifty years ago.
Selma is currently in wide release.