WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media
Editor’s note: This story has been updated for clarification
Some proclaim that America is a so-called post-racial society. Clearly, we aren’t. However, “Selma” is an important reminder of how far we have come in the fifty years since the historic 1965 voting rights marches in Alabama.
As the film kicks off, Reverend Martin Luther King is in Oslo, about to receive the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize. In an all too human moment, he is anxiously struggling with an ascot and bemoaning how it makes him look highfalutin. His wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) rushes to his side, helps him tie the ascot, and then becalms his frazzled nerves.
In the next scene, a group of African American girls are descending the stairwell of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. They are engaged in animated chit chat about childhood minutia. Suddenly, a bomb detonates, killing four young innocents. The depiction of splinters flying through the air are an early portent of the film’s artistry.
A subsequent vignette introduces Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey, also a co-producer of the film), who is a nurse at a local nursing home. She is intent upon registering to vote. To do so, she has entered the County Courthouse in Selma. However, if you aren’t white, registering isn’t a simple perfunctory act. Annie Lee knows that she must endure a gauntlet of questions by the local county registrar. In preparation, she has studied all of the arcane details of local and national government. The registrar demands that Annie Lee recite the preamble of the U.S. Constitution. When Annie Lee recites it hesitantly, but perfectly, he demands that she specify how many county judges there are in the state of Alabama. When Annie Lee responds with the correct number, he barks, “Name them!” When she is unable to proffer this information, he emphatically stamps Annie’s voting application as rejected.
The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 had put an official end to desegregation. However, the reality was that in many places, African -Americans were in the majority, but lacked any political power. Various barriers; poll taxes, vouchers, and extant social pressures; prevented African Americans from exercising their right to register.
James Bevel (Common) and Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson) from the Alabama Project as well as SNCC, headed by John Lewis (Stephan James) and James Orange (Omar J. Dorsey), had already been trying to organize an African-American voter registration drive in Selma.
At one point, a peaceful, late night protest march was led by Reverend C.T. Vivian (Corey Reynolds ). Alabama state troopers cut off the street lights, then attacked the marchers. Jimmy Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield); his mother (Niecy Nash); and his elderly grandfather, Cager Lee (Henry G. Sanders) flee and seek shelter in a diner. Following a scuffle, Jimmy Lee Jackson is shot to death by an irate lawman.
Dr. King and his fellow clergymen from the Southern Conference Leadership Council comrades arrive in Selma to join the fray. They had spent a year in Albany, Georgia, trying to organize a voter registration drive there. When the local sheriff responded to protests with restraint, efforts to obtain media coverage proved futile.
As the film points out, some of the local activists greeted Dr. King and the SCLC with open arms. Others regarded them as unwelcome interlopers.
Dr. King recognizes that Sheriff John Clark is likely to respond to peaceful protests with brutal tactics, much like Sheriff “Bull” Connors had practiced in Birmingham. Dr. King posits that if this ensues, perhaps it will attract media attention.
The marchers plan to take a 50-mile route from Selma over the city’s Edward Pettus Bridge to the state capitol in Montgomery. Parenthetically, the bridge was named after a Confederate brigadier general, who later became a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
When the unarmed marchers cross the bridge, a cadre of local police stand ready, armed with billy clubs, cattle prods, and tear gas, In conjunction with mounted possemen, they charge and beat the marchers. These images of this Bloody Sunday massacre were captured by television cameras and the images were broadcast nationwide. This prompted a groundswell of public revulsion
Throughout “Selma,” Dr. King is shown in a series of tense meetings in the White House with President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). As depicted here, LBJ repeatedly rebuffs Dr. King’s persistent requests for a voting rights bill. He claims that, “The time’s not right.” In addition, the film suggests that President Johnson prompted J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to forward secretly recorded tapes of Dr. King’s adulterous liaisons to his wife.
Some historians have raised criticisms of the film’s vilification of President Johnson. They suggest that although the two often had disagreements, their relationship was largely conciliatory, not contentious as depicted in the film. Andrew Young, the former Executive Director of the SCLC (played by Andre Holland in the film) pointed out that it was Robert Kennedy, the U.S. Attorney General under his brother, who authorized the F.B.I. to surreptitiously tape Dr. King. The film’s director, Ava DuVernay has contended, “In documentaries, there’s a truth that unfolds unnaturally and you get to chronicle it. In narratives, you have to create the situations so that the truth will come out.”
Despite these putative lapses on historical verisimilitude, the debut screenplay by Paul Webb is nuanced and provides a fascinating perspective. The film is frank in acknowledging Dr. King’s infidelities and the strain that it placed on his marriage. “Selma” simultaneously shows Dr. King as a pivotal figure, but also as part of a larger movement. It does an excellent job of dramatizing the sometimes acrimonious disputes among prominent civil rights leaders like Dr. King, Andrew Young, John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), and Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson). These are well-balanced with attention to some lesser known individuals.
Director, Ava DuVernay, is a former movie publicist. She had made only two prior feature films, both low-budget affairs. DuVernay helms “Selma” with the self-confidence and skill of a far more accomplished director. There is a sometimes a tendency to view the outcome of the civil rights movement as a foregone conclusion. However, under DuVernay’s adroit direction, “Selma” effectively captures the uncertainty of the outcome and the potentially lethal dangers that confronted activists.
David Oyelowo had lobbied aggressively for the lead role. This film reunites him with DuVernay, who previously directed him in “Middle of Nowhere.” It proved to be a propitious casting as Oleyowo’s performance is extraordinary. Oleyowo is a British–born actor of Nigerian parentage. He channels Dr. King’s Southern accent and the measured cadences of his oratory with startling precision. Oleyowo superbly embodies the gnawing self-doubts that plagued Dr. King, even as he attained international acclaim.
The film also boasts a tremendous supporting cast. Tom Wilkinson and Carmen Ejogo, as LBJ and Coretta Scott King respectively, both merit particular kudos. Even circumscribed roles are cast with actors who make their presence felt. Henry G. Sanders’ portrayal of Cager Lee, a stooped, diminutive octogenarian, is infused with considerable dignity. An end coda points out that at 84, Mr. Lee became the first person in his family to register to vote.
Other members of the sprawling ensemble cast also merit recognition. This includes Tim Roth as feisty Alabama governor, George Wallace; Martin Sheen as progressive Federal District Judge Frank Minis Johnson; Nigel Thatch as Malcolm X; Ledisi Young as gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson; Giovanni Ribisi as presidential advisor, Lee. C. White; Trai Byers as James Forman, a SNCC leader, who opposes Dr. King’s stratagems; and Cuba Gooding, Jr., doing his best work since “Jerry Maguire,” as Fred Gray, an SCLC attorney,
The technical package is top notch. Cinematographer, Bradford Young, frames and lights his shots stunningly. Production designer, Mark Friedberg, and costume designer, Ruth E. Carter, convincingly evoke the mid ‘60s. A score by Jason Moran offers an appealing aural enhancement to the visual text.
“Selma” is a masterpiece. For anyone, who despairs at the prospect of battling injustice, it serves as a great inspiration.
“Selma” **** PG-13 (for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language) 127 minutes
Film critic Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.