The memory of Martin Luther King Jr. marches on in Ava DuVernay’s ode to the Civil Right Movement.
It can hardly escape our attention that there was unrest and disorder in Missouri last year, beginning in August and erupting again in November. The events that sparked the 2014 Ferguson unrest, as well as the choices made by law enforcement faced with peaceful protest, raised very important questions about the free world and the appointed officials that we should be able to trust. With the release of Selma we are reminded that we have been asking these questions for a while.
Directed by Ava DuVernay, a female black director and publicist who has worked on the television series Scandal (2012-present) as well as several other independent films, Selma concerns the dramatic retelling of the 1965 marches as part of the Voting Rights movement in Alabama from the city of Selma to Montgomery. It begins with Martin Luther King Jr’s (played by David Oyelowo) acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Norway December 1964 and concludes with his address at the conclusion to the march three months later. During this time, King and his close friends witness and experience the extraordinary and unlawful violence of the Alabama state police toward unarmed, peaceful protestors and, perhaps more importantly, American President Lyndon B. Johnson’s (portrayed by Tom Wilkinson) unwillingness to intervene. These events seem uncomfortably familiar and resonate just as powerfully today.
Selma features violent imagery from start to finish, confronting the viewer with the abrasive conditions of the marches. The most extreme example occurs in the first few minutes of the film where we witness the sudden and shocking bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama by white supremacist terrorists, instantly killing four young girls in mid conversation. Such harsh representations of violence continue as the murders of local man Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) and Reverend James Reeb (Jeremy Strong), which occurred during the time of the marches, are graphically and distressingly depicted. The intention here is to not allow the relatively comfortable lens of history to cloud the severity of the crimes committed during the Selma marches, with either convenient off-screen violence or a tasteful fade out before the bloodshed. Rather, Selma reminds us explicitly of what the brave men and women who responded to the call for liberty faced in their pursuit of justice.
The alternative to this approach nullifies the many sacrifices of the activists by exploring civil rights in a vague, generalised manner, sugar-coating the distinctly bitter pill with talk of idealism and civil victories for African Americans. The harsh realities of the Civil Rights campaign was that, to many, the movement was a losing battle that simply demanded to be fought. This darker underbelly of the movement, not often represented on-screen, depicts King as a contentious tactician, directly aware of the losses and attacks being made on people who, in some cases, were his personal friends. In Selma, Oyelowo’s King is assaulted, threatened and arrested, and barely manages to preserve his intellectual and calculating demeanour where it counts. Although, as expected, he begins to struggle under the significant pressures he is faced with, confronted not only with the difficulties of being the face of a historic movement, but faced with death threats and worse to his wife and children on a daily basis.
Selma boasts a cast of lesser known actors, showcasing unknown black talent in the industry. Notable performances include David Oyelowo, a British actor known for starring in MI-5 (otherwise titled: Spooks, 2002-2004), who delivers an astounding performance as the preacher from Atlanta. Also worthy of note is Andre Holland’s performance as Andrew Young, who accompanies King as he travels between Selma and Washington to meet with the president. At one point, after the initial march where many men and women were savagely beaten, Young angrily addresses a protestor who suggests they “get the guns”, and reminds him that this would be exactly what the tyrannical police are after: justification for their bigotry. Wendell Pierce, recognisable from The Wire (2002-2008), plays Hosea Williams, another confident to King. Pierce draws the short straw before embarking on the first Selma march as he is selected to lead at the front of the demonstration alongside James Forman (Trai Byers), a leader of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), which is a local civil rights organisation for young people. They both witness and experience the violence of the initial march and do what they can to aid elderly and injured marchers, while trying to flee the armed police. The film closes on King’s address to the protestors at the end of the final march, during which he summarises the struggles faced by the Civil Rights Movement, inspirationally asking “How long? Not long, because ‘no lie can live forever’”.
Although many of the goals of the movement went on to be achieved, this superficial conclusion seems to depict a mythical end to racism. While this may have seemed the case after the successful Selma marches, the struggle was far from over, evident 50 years on with the unrest at Ferguson. John Legend's emotionally moving and Oscar nominated song "Glory" that scores the credits (featuring rap artist Common aka Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr.), directly links Selma to Ferguson through references in the lyrics, making the essential comparison crystal clear. As Common sings, “Selma’s now for every man, woman and child”.