***½ Selma (January 2105) David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, and Tom Wilkinson – Theatre
Selma covers a period of American history I wasn’t very familiar with previously. In 1965, African Americans had won the right to vote, but often weren’t able to exercise that right in southern states due to abusive registration processes that made it virtually impossible for them to get on the voter’s lists. After winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King took this on as his next battle.
Though continuing to adhere to his belief in passive resistance, King knew that drama was needed to get attention to the cause. While continuing to be peaceful, the protestors had to also be confrontational. They had to go, in large numbers, where they weren’t wanted. This required enormous courage.
Though the threat of violence was always present, I thought director Ava DuVernay did a magnificent job of always presenting attacks as surprising and shocking when they did occur. This is not violence for or as entertainment. These aren’t “action sequences”, but moments of horror.
As today’s film goers are shocked by them, so were some TV news viewers at the time.
But the film also shows that King’s struggled with the sacrifices his followers had to make for the cause—not to mention the ever-present danger to his own family. He was a preacher, and most (all?) of the movement’s supporters were also very devout, some also clergy. So religion and faith play a prominent part in the movie—to an unusual degree for a mainstream film. It made clear, regardless of own belief, that everyone involved at that time really needed God’s support, that they needed that shared belief, to do this difficult and courageous work.
The portrayal of Lyndon Johnson in the film has been controversial. While he is not presented as a villain, he is depicted as a practical politician with much to do, who doesn’t feel he can prioritize voting rights as quickly as Martin Luther King would like. Whether that’s true to history or not, I don’t know. But it definitely makes for a nice dramatic arc when he changes his mind and brings forward the Voting Rights Act.
Afterward Jean and I discussed the question of where we might have stood had we been whites in the US South at that time rather than Canadians now. You’d like to think you’d be on the side of good, or at least not so actively evil. But who knows?
Definitely a movie worth seeing.