“Selma” Movie Review

     There is a scene early in director Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” in which a middle aged black woman hesitantly walks up to the registrar of voters at the Selma Courthouse and hands her application to become a registered voter to a smug looking white man whose demeanor tells us the outcome of this exchange was predetermined before she walked through the door.  The woman, Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey) is quizzed on a number of trivial civic questions such as reciting the preamble of the Constitution, knowing the number of judges in the state, and naming each judge.  Though she is able to answer the first two questions, she isn’t able to name every judge and thereby has her application denied.  It’s ironic that even today, the majority of voters are unable to tell you who any of their federal, state, or local leaders are and yet in 1965 this was a right that was denied to people merely because of their race.  I highly doubt the nefarious fellow behind the desk knew the answers to the questions he was asking, but the scenario itself sets forth a very detailed look into yet another piece of ugly American history.

     This is 1965 Alabama under the direction of Governor George Wallace.  Though the country had just passed new legislation in the form of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was enacted to give all citizens equal rights regardless of color or ethnicity, the South clearly lagged behind in acceptance as its leaders continued to set an example of hatred and blatant racism.  DuVernay smartly focuses on a short three month period in 1964 where a group of activists led by Dr. Martin Luther King organized a march from Selma to the state’s capital, Montgomery, in an effort to force the state into recognizing the voting rights of the black population there.  The fact she stays on point allows for other notable activists from the era to share the stage and have their contributions to the cause noted along side their more famous colleague.  “Selma” is an unforgettable and powerful film, featuring an intense performance by David Oyelowo as Dr. King that is sure to garner him a Best Actor nomination and quite possibly the win.

     As with all historical dramas in which there are people still alive from the era who can offer their version of the events, “Selma” has already taken some criticism from those who look to preserve the presidency and legacy of President Lyndon B. Johnson (an outstanding Tom Wilkinson) and particularly how he handled the situation in Selma as it unfolded.  The context of various statements made by both sides can be debated forever, but in the end it can’t be argued that President Johnson was on the right side, having signed further legislation to ensure voting rights to black citizens.  But the politics in the film really isn’t what the story is about.  Not to me anyway.  What occurred on “Bloody Sunday” as it was called on March 7th, 1965 at the Edmund Pettus Bridge was a sickening display of ideals based on nothing more than fear and hatred of skin color.  If you wonder how we got to where we are today with the relationship between minorities and law enforcement, this history lesson would be a good place to start. 

     Though there were numerous historical contributions on his part, DuVernay’s film doesn’t center on Dr. King as he was only a part of the overall organization of this particular movement.  Certainly, there are several notable speeches featured throughout the film, each delivered with the kind of raw emotion and power that we believe could realistically create the kind of mass following he had.  Two primary groups were responsible for the creation of the march.  The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by Dr. King, Rev. Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), James Bevel (Common), Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, led by James Forman (Trai Byers) and John Lewis (Stephen James).  Paul Webb’s script features a number of scenes that depict the heated debate between these groups and the approaches that were necessary in order to gain the rights they deserved.  Primarily, these arguments centered around the use of violence versus a non violent approach.  Being the skilled orator that he was, Dr. King’s non violent approach typically won out, but unfortunately, the marches these groups organized sadly and unjustly put many of them into harms way.

     Just when you thought these kinds of people were blown to bits at the end of Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained”, “Selma” introduces us to several real life characters whose lives seemed dedicated to preserving ideals that should’ve long since passed, but still burned feverishly within the confines of many Southern states and it all started at the top.  Governor Wallace (Tim Roth) himself speaks of how things have always been in his state during a contentious meeting with President Johnson in the White House and it’s clear these ideals trickled all the way down to the Selma County Sheriff, Jim Clark (Stan Houston), whose formation in front of the Selma Courthouse during one of the first peaceful demonstrations by Dr. King and the town’s residents was reminiscent of the platoon of riot gear clad Police Officers who stood to defend the Ferguson Courthouse the night the Michael Brown verdict was read.  This is not to compare these two incidents, they are both completely different, but you have to figure those who were there and saw Clark’s men and what they did that day certainly passed on their experiences to future generations, making the dealings with the current generation in Ferguson nearly impossible for the Police based on perception alone.

     Much like Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave” last year, which was my pick as 2013’s best film, “Selma” effectively evokes a myriad of emotions.  At times I felt anger and others I felt utter sadness.  It is truly appalling what some human beings are capable of, both then and now.  While DuVernay’s film is one of the best of the year, due to its exceptional craftsmanship, acting, and direction; it is also a stark reminder of what it will take to move forward today.  Based on what I know and what I’ve read about Dr. King, I believe if he were alive now, he would tell us any solutions to the problems involving race in this country will only materialize as a result of coming together as people, not from attempting to advance our own individual agendas.  If we as a society continue along the path of which we are currently traveling, I fear the pain and sacrifice of the people depicted in “Selma” will have all been for nothing.  GRADE: A