Selma – 2014

Director Ava DuVernay
Starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Common, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Carmen Ejogo, Lorraine Toussaint, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Niecy Nash, Colman Domingo, Giovanni Ribisi, Dylan Baker, Alessandro Nivola, Keith Stanfield, André Holland, Tessa Thompson, Wendell Pierce, Henry G. Sanders
Screenplay by Paul Webb

There are many strong feelings evoked for the viewer of Selma. In a country that is still struggling with the callouses of racial wounds, there have been strikingly few movies dealing directly with the person who acted as its greatest salve. There are many legends and half-truths. There are some great and painful efforts to express the truth about what many of our American children suffered, as well as the strategies employed by those who sought to overcome that suffering.  Even with a major holiday bearing his name, it’s hard to picture what it was like to be Martin Luther King, Jr. at the time of our nation’s great crossroads.

The first image we see in the story is a somewhat normal conversation between a husband and wife. The husband, King (Oyelowo) does not like the tie he is trying to put on. That is because, his wife, Coretta (Ejogo) informs him, it is an Ascot. This could be a conversation between any husband and wife. By the overwhelming tension, though, we know more than the words are being expressed. It’s the weight of the world being shouldered by both.

It would be something if this was all one had to consider: a journey of two. DuVernay and Webb have more on their minds, however. We are given an expansive view of the team behind the March to Selma, Alabama in 1965. We get to see heroes like Cager Lee (Sanders), Amelia Boynton Robinson (Toussaint), James Bevel (Common), Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah), Fred Gray, (Gooding, Jr.), Diane Nash (Thompson), Jimmie Lee Jackson (Stanfield), Andrew Young (Holland) and Hosea Williams (Pierce) to name just a few. Some names we know, many we never would, were it not for works like this.

We are also given a picture of the effort from the point of view of those in power, from ranging from the evil defiance of George Wallace (Roth) to the annoyed, distracted  and ultimately vital support of LBJ (Wilkinson). There is some debate of the veracity of LBJ’s portrayal in the film, and that is alright. Wilkinson gives a respectful portrayal that fits well within what is known of LBJ, while showing that there was a partnership, albeit a tense one, between the President and MLK.

Views that many white people could identify with are here too, and not in a passing or obligatory way. The first march, met with such a violent response, is viewed by many on their televisions due to reporters on the scene. This incurs an overwhelming outpouring of support from many throughout the U.S., helping to change the face of the movement to what it really was: citizens united for justice and equality.

Selma succeeds by shortening the time span to the events up to and around the march. In narrowing that scope, we are allowed glimpses into the hearts, minds and actions of many more stake holders. If these glimpses are not 100% accurate (Cooper lost her job as a nurse and had to work as a motel clerk in real life), the spirit of essential truth remains. We need more of this.

The performances are excellent throughout. Taking on the daunting role of the giant, Oyelowo stands tall by allowing us to see his doubts. There are two particularly strong scenes in which we see him take phone calls late at night, searching for some inspiration. He hears this, absorbs it whole into his body and soul, exhales the bad and coming out renewed for another day.

DuVernay’s work is confident, clear minded and observant. Her efforts give us a vision of the past that is mournful, peaceful, joyful and filled with hope. It helps to remind us that there is a chance to make change that does not involve the fleecing charlatanism of the Jackson and Sharpton orthe agitated slurs of inconvenienced white citizens waiting to get into a baseball game. Nor does it require looting and violence. Selma is now and forever the arms of all God’s children, interlocked and walking together down the road. In this way, it moves me to learn more and love more.

(***** out of *****)

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