Review: Selma (2014)
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, there were calls for the UK curriculum to be decolonised in order to teach history in a way that goes beyond the somewhat skewed white narrative. Most people learnt about Martin Luther King Jr in school, but the extent of that for most was probably knowing that he was assassinated and before that he delivered an important speech about having a dream. While those things are important to know, Selma serves as a reminder that there are so many other moments of success and triumph in King's life that could be more widely celebrated. And not just that, but the extent of violence and hate experienced by black people which lead to the necessity for such a movement needs much more emphasis too.
Ava DuVernay's filmography already goes some way to educating mass audiences on black history and she has experimented with various forms to do this throughout her filmmaking career. Her 2016 documentary 13th explains, in no uncertain terms, how the system works against black people in the USA, and how it has been perpetuating racism through mass incarceration since the abolishment of slavery. DuVerney's 2019 mini series When They See Us chronicles the true story of the 'Central Park Five', focusing on how the criminal justice system affected a specific group of young black men. Selma, a biographical drama, centres around the historical marches that Martin Luther King Jr led across the Edmund Pettus Bridge as a demonstration about racial inequality and voter suppression.
Selma - named after the starting point of a historical five-day march in Alabama, USA - honours a chapter of Martin Luther King's life which is conveyed as a taxing time for him, but also as a time of reform for people of colour in America thanks to his resolute commitment to the civil rights movement. He is undoubtably a man who dedicated his life to doing the right thing, and the performance of David Oyelowo as King is so brilliantly layered that it portrays a person who is continually fighting on several fronts. In the first scene, for example, King is getting dressed for the ceremony where he will be awarded the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. Even in this moment of deserved acknowledgement, guilt seeps into his countenance as he worries about the potential hypocrisy of him and his wife getting dressed up for a extravagant event while the people that he consistently speaks up for are potentially struggling.
A similar case of conflict is seen in President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) as he fights his inner conscience and the political implications of 'giving in' to King's demands for equal voting rights. It seems incredibly odd to deny any human of such a basic right, but given the timeline of hateful acts coming out of the Whitehouse during Trump's presidency and the Windrush scandal in the UK some 50 years on, perhaps it shouldn't come as such a surprise. The main difference in this case is that Johnson signed the epochal Voting Rights Act of 1965, meaning that the discriminatory practices which were in place (largely in southern states) to prevent black people from being able to vote were outlawed. The series of events leading to the passing of this landmark legislation is what we see through DuVerney's Selma. Incidentally, it is this element of the storyline which received criticism for supposed misrepresentation of Johnson.
Central to the film is the march from Selma to Montgomery. In March 1965, it started with 3200 people walking for 12 hours a day, and ended with approximately 25,000 people as they approached the state capital. Prior to that, the march had been attempted with fewer people and ended with brutal attacks on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. DuVernay uses the bridge as a symbol of division, resilience and bravery - peaceful protesters were attacked there, and yet, they returned to cross it again - the next time with even more people behind them. Some of the most important actions take place in this setting on the bridge: King demonstrating leadership as he decides to turn around in order to protect people from harm; civil and state brutality taking place in plain sight; civil rights in action - thousands of people marching in solidarity to stand up against voter discrimination. Seeing this many people protesting peacefully together is a sight to behold; it is a visual representation of people power, democracy in action, and showing up for each other in a time of need.
One of the most striking elements of the film, besides the engrossing narrative, is Oyelowo's depiction of King. Clearly, given the period of time, hair, make up and costuming play an important role in achieving verisimilitude. All of those details, from the fit of King's suits to the shape of his moustache, are crucial in allowing the actor to feel their way into character. Still, Oyelowo not only looks the part, but sounds it. King is often referred to as one of the greatest orators of all time so the tone, rhythm and cadence of every spoken line is, in many ways, more important that how he looks. Listening to Oyelowo delivering lines like, "We're not asking - we're demanding! Give us the vote!" is a truly inspiring cinematic experience, and luckily he has the on-screen presence to accompany the iconic voice. Every forthright point, step and glance embodies Martin Luther King's unmistakably dignified disposition.
While the speeches in Selma are rousing and there is an eventual cause for celebration, the journey the characters (and therefore the historical figures they are playing - Jimmie Lee Jackson and his grandfather Cager Lee, Andrew Young, John Lewis, Viola Liuzzo, Coretta Scott King) go on, is courageous and at times extremely distressing. Though visionary in their determination to achieve change through non-violent means, the battles faced - symbolic and physical - are sometimes hard to watch. Civilians walking across a bridge in support of justice shouldn't be met with tear gas and clubs, yet that is one of the obstructions faced on this path to righteousness. It remains a source of shame knowing that these events happened decades ago, and at the same time acknowledging that racial violence is still prevalent today.
One reiterated concern in Selma is the importance of truth. King speaks of truth as freedom and in one of his final lines before a moving montage of footage at the end of film says,"We have seen powerful white men rule the world, while offering poor white men a vicious lie as placation." serving as a sobering reminder of our own current realities. But just as King was determined to make the world a better place through his words and non-violent actions, Ava DuVernay seems determined to use her creative voice for good through select story-telling and generous distribution.
Selma thankfully doesn't focus on King's assassination, but of a journey leading to a moment of victory and progress instead. If Martin Luther King Jr was previously a historical enigma, thanks to this film we are shown more of the man behind the movement as he exemplifies the power of peaceful protest.
Verdict: A moving account of an incredible time in the history of the civil rights movement as Martin Luther King Jr leads thousands of people in a march for racial justice. A film we can, and must, learn from.
Big screen appeal? 🎬🎬🎬
Accolade eligibility? 💡💡💡💡💡