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Selma [Movie Review]

Selma provides a snapshot of the efforts to end systematic suppression of Black voting and other civil rights in the South. Black people had the legal right to vote but local rules and intimidation prevented them from exercising their rights. The film focuses on the SCLC and SNCC organized Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965. It also takes a close look at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s (David Oyelowo) lobbying meetings with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson).

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There were some ruffled feathers about Johnson’s portrayal. A few former Johnson aides felt that his role in the Civil Rights Movement was downplayed and inaccurate.

The film was fair in showing Johnson as weighing the political and historical ramifications of his actions. Supporting the Civil Rights Movement would have placed him on the right side of history. (Johnson actually lectures another character on this very point towards the end of the film.) But, doing so would have also alienated large voter bases in the South. (The aftermath isn’t covered in the film but this did occur as large swaths of the South switched political parties.)

Johnson wanted to use his political capital to focus on a war on poverty that he felt was more pressing and would have been more acceptable. Johnson was a politician so it’s not a stretch to assume that he weighed his options. I didn’t understand the fuss because Johnson wasn’t the hero but he also wasn’t a villain.

These events were taking place about 100 years after the abolition of slavery. Which was also about 100 years after the granting of equal protection under citizenship. Yet, Black people in the South were still living under intolerable oppression. Systematic voter restrictions limited options for recourse. Black people had been waiting for 100 years and couldn’t delay the next phase in the fight for equal rights any longer.

King and the other activists decided that turning the Movement into front page news would get the public’s attention and force the President to take action. They staged a demonstration at the Selma Courthouse in Alabama, which housed the Voter Registration Office. It’s the perfect battleground for attracting press because the hotheaded Sheriff ensures the needed drama. The demonstration charts a path to the Selma night march and Selma to Montgomery Marches.

In an excellent portrayal, Tim Roth enters the fray as George Wallace, Governor of Alabama. It was shocking to see a US Governor advocate for the preservation of racial discrimination. Wallace personifies the fiery and hostile opposition to Black people exercising their rights.

A brief appearance by Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) adds more fuel to the fire. He serves as a threat beyond the gates that could become the face of a more militant movement. Malcolm X is a foil but also an unexpected ally for King.

King and Johnson had different views on the urgency and best course of action for ensuring the enfranchisement of Black people. Yet, the distance between their views was close enough for negotiation. This wasn’t the case with the more extreme opposing views of Malcolm X and Wallace. Selma does an interesting job of showing the three levels of contrast: King vs. Malcolm X, King vs. Johnson, and Johnson vs. Wallace.

Selma also touches on another interesting relationship, that of King and his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo). In a very moving scene, the couple discusses the difficulty of living under the constant threat of death and violence. Living under these circumstances were no doubt difficult for King. But, it made me think about the burdens and difficulties that Coretta faced as well.

I enjoyed the movie and while it wasn’t perfect, I thought it was quite good. The leads of the film and the actors in those roles all did great jobs. They were well cast from a physical perspective and were also able to capture the presence of the people they were portraying.

In contrast, the supporting characters were not outstanding. The acting wasn’t bad but the characters lacked detail. For example, I thought Dylan Baker was one of Johnson’s random aides or associates. He didn’t have the presence that one would expect from a looming historical figure such as J. Edgar Hoover.

This was also true to some extent for several of the civil rights activists. Prominent figures of the time such as Hosea Williams, Bayard Rustin, Ralph Abernathy, etc. weren’t fleshed out. It’s possible to watch the film and think they were King’s friends or aides rather than important figures.

After watching Selma I wondered about the possibility of a future major motion picture focused on Martin Luther King, Jr.

It would be interesting to see his entire life and a closer view of his relationship with other major figures in the Civil Rights Movement. Imagine a peek behind the scenes into the planning of The March on Washington. Or his experiences in Chicago. I also thought Coretta was very interesting and wanted to know more about her perspective and experience. Selma generated a lot of attention around its release. I hope it will motivate others to begin planning more expansive films and/or a quality miniseries.

Recommendation

I’d recommend checking out Selma if you’re interested in history, social/civil issues, or the Civil Rights Movement. This was also the project that introduced me to Ava DuVernay. You might like this film if you’ve enjoyed her other work.

2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches and the Voters Rights Act of 1965. In light of recent events, the movie feels especially relevant to modern times.

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