The other night I went to see the movie, Selma, the story of 3 months in civil rights history culminating in the movement’s leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., heading a non-violent, 5-day march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in order to achieve the right to vote for all black citizens of the United States.
For those my age or older, this is a reliving of history, a history that should never be forgotten; for those younger, it is a story of extreme bravery in the face of brutal, bigoted opposition that needs to be told. I’m part of that group who remembers where they were when President Kennedy was assassinated, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, when Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated. In the wake of events in Paris and New York City last week, let’s not lose sight of the fact that senseless violence is not exclusive to any one culture, country, or religion.
The movie begins with King and his wife Coretta (David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo) dressing for the ceremony where he is to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Sweden (1964), and ends with his speech on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol as people are singled out in close-up with a text appearing to say what became of them:
Andrew Jackson Young who served as a Congressman from Georgia’s 5th congressional district, U S Ambassador to the United Nations, and Mayor of Atlanta;
John Robert Lewis, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and in 1987 became the U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district, and is today the dean of the Georgia congressional delegation;
Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a volunteer from Detroit, Michigan who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan while driving another activist home from the march to Montgomery, Alabama;
Sheriff Jim Clark who was sheriff of Dallas County, Alabama, from 1955 to 1966, and one of the officials responsible for the violent arrests of civil rights protestors during the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches, lost his bid for re-election and never held the position of sheriff again;
and Coretta Scott King who went on to found the Centre for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta and was successful in lobbying to establish a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. She never remarried.
Juxtaposed to King’s acceptance speech, is the explosion in a church where a half dozen young negro girls were killed. (Back in the early 60s, it was common for the race to be called negro, and for racists to refer to them as niggers; later, it became politically incorrect to use the term “negro”, and the term “black” was used instead.) The special effects used in this scene, while showing the devastating effects of the bomb, lessened the impact a bit by shielding us from more direct images. It drives home the contrast between the extreme violence used against blacks and the need for protection for blacks who were, after all, only seeking what all other citizens of the U.S. already had: the right to vote.
Surprisingly, there is no mention of the Ku Klux Klan in the movie, even though it was clan members who killed James Reeb, a white Unitarian Universalist minister, on the streets of Selma after their second march to the bridge where state troopers stood aside. Two white men are shown beating Reeb to death but nothing identifies them as klan members.
The movie shows King as a man with a man’s flaws, but also shows him as a brilliant speaker who could hold an audience and move them to act, and who cared deeply about putting people in harm’s way. (Copyright prevented King’s speeches from being given verbatim; for more about that click here.) It showed his willingness to push President Johnson (who had a different agenda than King, according to the movie), and his unwillingness to back down and compromise when things were heating up for the government. Excellent casting of David Oyelowo in the role of King — totally believable as King. In an interview with Anna Lisa Raya for Deadline presents AwardsLine, Oyelowo said,
. . . there was a moment where I was in the bathroom getting ready for bed, and I looked in the mirror, and I couldn’t see myself. I kept looking, and I couldn’t see myself, and it was the weirdest thing. All that was looking back at me was this man I was portraying.
Other strong performances were played by Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper (also one of the producers of Selma),
Tom Wilkinson playing President Johnson, and Stan Houston as Sheriff Jim Clark, Keith Stanfield who played Jimmie Lee Jackson, and many others. The unflappable Judge Frank Minis Johnson, Jr., who overruled the law used to try to stop the Selma to Montgomery march, was played by Martin Sheen (uncredited). An interesting note was added when MLK phoned gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (Ledisi Young) late at night to hear her sing because he needed inspiration.
The use of original black and white newsreel/TV footage of marches was integrated beautifully and stunningly portrays the solidarity between blacks and whites in the final march. Many recognizable celebrities are visible, Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, and Tony Bennett, to name a few, and it brought back to mind all the freedom songs associated with the movement and the era.
There is a really fun interview with Oyelowo, Ejogo, and Oprah on Ellen that you should watch to truly appreciate the amazing job they did with their characters.
This is an excellent movie, a well-told history lesson with lots of drama and suspense, even when you know the final outcome. A top notch movie. * * * * *
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