About the march to Alabama’s capital Birmingham to crusade for the Voting Rights Act, but it’s really the first film drama to intimately put Martin Luther King up on the screen. Selma is an educational film, but it’s not a treacle lesson movie – it has intelligence and sociological truth. King did not organize the march because he was confident it was to be a foolproof plan, no. King knew in theory that it must be done, was in disbelief that the first attempt was met with police brutality violence, doubted his decision-making from there, but proceeded additional attempts because to back down would be a sign of weakness.
Thankfully the New York Times and a number of nationally broadcast news channels were there in 1965. How ridiculous did white crackers look at piping down, whipping and even killing non-violent black protesters in that first march? We live in a rather peaceful integrated culture that is sharply contrast to life fifty years ago. I want nothing to do with those Alabama white people of those times. Thankfully when I look at my lineage, it’s true I have no connection to them.
I was relieved to see that there were decent white people who saw the violence on TV, and decided to participate in the subsequent march. It’s also shameful that some of them were killed later too, by KKK-wannabes that called them “White Niggers.”
Some of the most impressive scenes of the film are King’s one-on-ones with President Lyndon Johnson in the White House, because the script has brilliantly found a grey area. President Johnson praises King’s pacifist leadership, says that he’s doing great things for “his people,” and that just there – it’s so condescending. President Johnson can sign a bill that will end any further protests, but in a childish way, the President doesn’t. There is an incredible dialogue exchange on the phone when King tells the President to buck up and act like a man, that the decision is on his end. I love how actor David Oyelowo (the son in “The Butler”) makes King so persuasive and verbal as to take a strong stance on his position before the President. Oyelowo brings a great authoritative voice for his King characterization, he looms with wisdom.
Ava DuVernay, the director, has made two small movies (“I Will Follow,” “Middle of Nowhere”), and this is her first big one. I appreciated how she adds in headings that specific scenes are based on actual “logged” records. DuVernay has brought in amazing historical context and intermixed believable behavior of King and citizens of the city of Selma, she has justly amplified shame on white bigots who cowardly struck peaceful men and women, she has wisely inserted a scene in the four little girls who died from the infamous Baptist church bombing, and she has coherently dramatized big speeches. Her film, I add reluctantly, is a bit pokey at times in the first half, it never has the awesome confidence and swagger of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X.” Call me crazy, as remarkable as scenes are the way they stand, I want her filmmaking to get angrier, more passionate next time.
What an important film she’s made, however. It’s going to be as effective as a history capsule as any other documentation to be found on those racist-hatred times.
With Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey, Wendell Pierce, Common, Cuba Gooding Jr., Dylan Baker, Tim Roth and Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Johnson.
HISTORICAL DRAMA / BIOPIC / WEEKEND FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Film Cousins: “King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis” (1970); “4 Little Girls” (1997); “Selma, Lord, Selma” (1999); “The Butler” (2013).