Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hour 8 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 6; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
For the Lord loves justice; he will not forsake his faithful ones. The righteous shall be kept safe forever, but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.
When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous, but dismay to evildoers.
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
In the struggle for a free India, Gandhi’s famous March to the Sea in defiance of the British is a historical milestone. Similarly, America has the Gandhi-inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Selma March. This was a shorter march than Gandhi’s, but as it turned out—it was far, far more dangerous.
We have two films that depict those brave leaders and marchers, Richard Attenborough’s splendid Gandhi, and now Ava DuVarnay’s memorable Selma. No film in the past year comes close to being both as inspiring and to being—in the light of ongoing protests against police abuse of blacks in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland—as relevant. Although the depiction of President Johnson in the first half of the film is flawed, the film is still the finest and most nuanced film depiction of Dr. King, and, important to note, also of those around him.
The film begins in Norway in December 1964 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., (David Oyelowo) is dressing in formal attire for the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. As Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) helps him with the unfamiliar tie, he expresses his discomfort at living amidst such luxury while so many of their people back home are living in poverty. After a brief snatch of his acceptance speech, about equality and justice, before the assembled dignitaries the camera cuts to a group of black children dressed in their Sunday best. As they come down the stairs by a stained glass window, we suddenly realize what we are about to witness took place at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. Sure enough, a powerful explosion destroys a section of the church, the scene ending with a view of one of the twisted bodies of the four girls killed in the blast. This incident actually took place over a year earlier, on September 15, 1963, but the juxtaposition serves well to show the contrast of the two worlds in which Martin and Coretta Scott King moved in during their tormented lives.
The film then focuses upon black hospice nurse and activist Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey, who also served as a producer). She is attempting to register to vote. The ordeal which the arrogant registrar puts her through—not being able to find fault with the application itself, he demands that she recite the Preamble to the US Constitution, and when she does, flawlessly, he still turns her down—gives the audience a good example of what blacks attempting to register to vote went through. As Dr. King explains later, without the right to vote, not only can blacks not choose their government representatives, but they cannot serve on juries, thus prolonging the day when all white juries refuse justice to black defendants.
Directing a great cast that breathes life into Paul Webbs’s script, Ms. DuVarnay explores the events and the people surrounding what actually were three Selma marches—the first, led by Rev. Hosea Williams and John Lewis on March 7, 1965 onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the day becoming known as “Bloody Sunday” because of the vicious beatings by the police; the second led by Dr. King on March 9, known as “Turnaround Tuesday,” due to Dr. King stopping and then turning the marchers around; and the third, completed, march from March 21 to the 25th, when, in Montgomery on the steps of the state capitol building, Dr. King gave his speech that climaxes the film, “How Long, Not Long.”
The marches and the violent attacks are well enacted, but the quieter, more intimate personal scenes are what make the film really stand out. The film readily acknowledges the conflict between Dr. King’s well-established Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) and its offshoot the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”). Local Selma African Americans had been trying to register to vote since the late Fifties, forming the Dallas County Voters League. SNCC workers began working with the DCVL in early 1963, but had succeeded only in getting jailed or beaten up. In the film we see Dr. King, in response to the DCVL’s invitation talking with them and SNCC leaders John Lewis, the latter who regard him as invading their turf. The young SNCC leaders are still smarting that Dr. King did not just fail to support their Freedom Rides, but tried to dissuade them.
Dr. King’s SCLC has had a bad time in Albany, GA with its “Albany Movement.” The astute police chief Laurie Pritchett had pursued a policy of mass arrests but no beatings, just the opposite of Bull Conner in Birmingham, who used dogs, fire hoses and clubs against demonstrators. As a result the SCLC’s movement won few tangible results, but because no atrocities meant little publicity in the North, the Albany Movement was generally regarded as a defeat for the SCLC. Thus Dr. King asks the Selma leaders, “Is your sheriff Bull Connor or is he Laurie Pritchett?” When they respond that their Sheriff Jim Clark is a Bull Conner, King and his aides know they have come to the right place. Eventually SNCC worker John Lewis is won over, becoming a close associate of King.
The scene with Coretta Scott King and Martin listening to the tape which FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) has sent them to discredit the man whom he has labeled “the most dangerous man in America” is beautifully staged. A bit of humor is injected when King says that the sexual panting and groaning on the tape is not his, and she replies, “I know…I know what you sound like.” But then she goes on to say that she is no fool, that she wants to know if he loves any of the other women. He assures her that he loves only her, and they embrace. This is a strained marriage, but not a broken one. In another scene she reassures her husband when he expresses his self-doubts, and the fatigue with living with “the constant closeness of death.”
In another intimate scene in a car at night Dr. King shares his self-doubts with John Lewis. By now totally in tune with his former adversary, the future Congressman reassures King by telling him that it was because he had heard King speak that he had decided to join the group on the Freedom Rides. He quotes for him Matthew 6:27. Then too, there is the moment late at night when the troubled mind of the leader will not allow him to sleep. He calls up Mahalia Jackson (Ledisi Young), and the great singer soothes his soul with a song.
All this time King and his associates are under constant surveillance, as we see when many sequences are introduced by brief F.B.I. field reports typed onto the screen, a technique that helps us know where and when the depicted event is taking place. One of the film’s flaws is the suggestion in a scene showing Hoover and Johnson talking in the Oval Office, that the President initiated the surveillance and the production of the tape, when in reality the conservative Director, offended by what he regarded as King’s radical tactics, had started keeping King under close scrutiny for years during the Kennedy administration. Hoover was not only opposed to King’s politics, but regarded him as a “political and moral degenerate.”
The film is appropriately titled because it does not attempt to tell the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. but to focus on a pivotal moment in US history. The filmmakers wisely show us through a series of cameo performances that the Movement was not a one-man affair, but a team effort with many members playing important roles. Along with John Lewis we see the Rev. Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce); the Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo, playing King’s best friend); the Rev. C.T. Vivian (Vorey Reynolds); Andrew Young (Andre’ Holland); James Forman (Trai Byers); Jimmy Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), the young black activist murdered by police while protecting his mother (the killer cop escaped justice for 40 years!); and a CR organizer too often overlooked because a woman had a hard time rising to prominence in that patriarchal age, Diane Nash (Ms. Thompson), about whom an entire movie should be made. Veteran actor Martin Sheen plays Judge Johnson, then the only Southern judge sympathetic to blacks, whose decision against the State of Georgia allows the March to go on legally. Even Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) enters the picture, coming to Selma to speak at Brown Chapel as a sign of solidarity, and telling the worried Coretta that he wants to show whites that they had best support Dr. King and his nonviolence, lest blacks turn to those who do not believe in a nonviolent approach to racism.
I was also happy to see the brief appearance of the martyred white minister from Boston James Reeb (Jeremy Strong), his story powerfully told in a book I read last year, The James Reeb Story. There are of course, the villains, Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), not all sorry that he is on “the wrong side of history,” and the maliciously bigoted J. Edgar Hoover. Which brings us to the portrayal of President Johnson. In 1964, after pushing through Congress the Civil Rights Act, the President was reluctant to follow this up with a bill specifically targeting the vast network of Southern laws and regulations preventing blacks from being able to register to vote. As shown in the film, he was concerned with both his War on Poverty and the War in Vietnam, the latter of which would cripple the former because of the draining of its funds to support the war. However, by the time of the Selma March, he had come around to King’s point of view that the nation needed to see the vicious result of Southern opposition, so it is unfortunate that the current argument over its historical accuracy has diverted attention away from the subject of the film, the terrible injustice of racists, who still are standing in the way of racial progress. Also, the critics do not mention that the Johnson in the last half of the film is in synch with Dr. King. In the Oval Office he dresses down Gov. Wallace, telling him he ought not to be “on the wrong side of history.” And in the re-enactment of the last part of the President’s televised speech announcing the introduction of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (which he had ordered drafted months before), we hear the concluding words that electrified those of us old enough to have heard the original, “and we shall overcome!”
I do wish that more time had been allotted for the third march that took place over four days. What we do see is fine, but seems a bit rushed compared to the time given to the build-up to this event. In addition to Dr. King’s delightfully humorous question (to Ralph Abernathy?) as they look down from the bridge to the river below, “Can you swim?” there could have been shown more of the tremendous effort in setting up the tents and preparing the food for the 300 marchers. Although we catch a glimpse of such celebrities as Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis, Jr. on the March, more of the entertainers who also had joined might have been shown—in addition, there were Frankie Laine, Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez, Nina Simone, and Dr. King’s friend Tony Bennett. This, of course, is a minor quibble, but when I consider how inflated is the film version of The Hobbit, I wish another 15 to 30 minutes could have been added for an infinitely more worthy film.
The film is well summed up by these words from poet James Weldon Johnson’s song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called the “Negro National Anthem:”
“We have come, over a way that which tears has been watered
We have come, treading out path through the blood of the slaughtered
Out of the gloomy past, till now we stand at last,
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.”
(Full text at http://www4.semo.edu/abc/negro_national_anthem.htm)
The film does not use this hymn nor any of the familiar Civil Rights songs on its soundtrack, but it does employ the wonderful anthem written expressly for this film by John Legend and Common, “Glory.” This engaging rap-anthem shows the relevance of the 50 year-old events:
“Justice for all just ain’t specific enough
One son died, his spirit is revisitin’ us
Truant livin’ livin’ in us, resistance is us
That’s why Rosa sat on the bus
That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up”
Despite what the majority of the Supreme Court thought when they struck down key portions of Johnson’s Voting Rights Act, Legend and Common declare;
“Now the war is not over,
Victory isn’t won
And we’ll fight on to the finish…”
The two understand the Biblical parallel with the long struggle against racism:
“Selma’s now for every man, woman and child
Even Jesus got his crown in front of a crowd
They marched with the torch, we gon’ run with it now…”
Even Dr. King’s tactic of nonviolence is affirmed, with an interesting insight concerning the music of the Movement:
“Enemy is lethal, a king became regal
Saw the face of Jim Crow under a bald eagle
The biggest weapon is to stay peaceful
We sing, our music is the cuts that we bleed through…”
The anthem also recognizes what the film makers have asserted, that the Movement was not just centered on Dr. King:
“No one can win the war individually
It takes the wisdom of the elders and young people’s energy
Welcome to the story we call victory
Comin’ of the Lord, my eyes have seen the glory…”
I don’t know how the film will fare in the Oscar nomination race, but I hope the song will be among those nominated. If so, it will be one of the few Oscar songs that actually says something significant–as does this incredibly significant film. A friend says that Selma probably will not be chosen by Academy members as “Best Picture” because The Butler won last year, so that another racially themed film does not stand a chance. I hope he is wrong—and when you see this film, I think you also might agree. British actors David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo are superb as the couple sacrificing their private lives to the Civil Rights struggle, their dedication to the film matched by the marvelous supporting cast!
When an even more controversial film, Birth of a Nation, was shown at the White House on the evening of March 21, 1915, the impressed President Wilson reportedly said, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” That Wilson actually said this has been disputed by those who think that author of the play and novel on which the film was based, Thomas Dixon, wrote them to promote the film. Regardless of who did, the memorable words, with the word “mostly” qualifying “true,” could also apply to Ava DuVarnay’s Selma. This is a film I wish every American would see and heed.
This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the Feb. issue of Visual Parables, available at the Store.
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