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Once in a while, a movie can shake the narrative of history as you once understood it. Selma is that kind of movie.
A period drama focusing on the events leading up to the historic marches for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., the film is already a frontrunner for next year’s Oscars—which means director Ava DuVernay might become one of the few female and African-American directors to win the prestigious award.
The film (rated PG-13 for intense sequences of real drama and violence) starts with Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) getting ready to accept his Nobel Peace Prize, fumbling and grumbling about his “ridiculous” ascot tie. His wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) patiently helps him tuck the ascot into his waistcoat. It’s a tender, private moment between a couple whose marriage will endure long separations, death threats, and whispers of infidelity—and the first of many scenes that make this movie not a hagiography of King, but a colorful mosaic of the ordinary men and women who made history.
Writer Paul Webb did his research: There’s Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) stoically swallowing another rejection at the voting registration booth, until that afternoon she punches a sheriff in the jaw. There’s Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), a young black deacon shot and killed by a state trooper after police officers ravaged a peaceful march. There’s also a short but significant scene with James Reeb (Jeremy Strong), a white Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston, musing about the role of prayer in King’s movement before a group of Ku Klux Klan members club him to death.
But the star is Oyelowo. The British actor, an outspoken Christian, breathes multiple dimensions into the mythical figure of King as a husband, a father, a pastor, a brother, a friend, and a believably flawed human. Viewers see an off-the-pulpit King: the spiritual, psychological, and physical fatigue; the haunting self-doubt; the relaxed camaraderie with friends as he wolfs down gravy and biscuits.
And then there’s King as a strategist and a savvy manipulator of media. Selma chronicles the behind-the-scenes political chess-playing within both the grassroots communities and the White House. In one scene, an impatient King stands facing President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) before a portrait of George Washington, demanding immediate liberty for black people. “We can’t wait,” King urges, while a frustrated LBJ hums and haws, unwilling to divert public attention from his “War on Poverty.”
Meanwhile, King also deals with unrest and distrust within his own movement, as some young activists accuse him of attention-seeking and others want physical retaliation.
Though not a Christian movie, Selma flows with the undercurrents of Christian values. After all, King was a man who insisted that the civil rights movement be guided by Christian principles, who refused to drop the word “Christian” from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to attract Northern liberals.
In one pivotal scene, King leads a second march down the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Troops are waiting on the other end. Then King suddenly kneels down, bows his head, and prays. To the great consternation of many participants, he turns around and walks away, preventing another potential bloodbath. That’s just one of several scenes showing the role of spiritual guidance in King’s movement.
But it’s hard to remember King’s philosophies when watching Bloody Sunday, the first march in which a barricade of state troopers charged into the crowd with horses, batons, whips, and tear gas. It’s a terrible, gruesome, but beautifully shot scene, where every crack of nightstick on skull, every shriek as bones crush on pavement, will shock you as the same horrible televised images shocked Americans at the time. The moment is unforgettable, and it imprints an understanding of the wounds that still fester within our nation today.
Some might worry that Selma is an inflammatory screed on evil white supremacists trodding on poor black civilians. It’s not. Selma doesn’t offer ham-handed political or social justice messages but simply provides what every worthy movie should: masterful storytelling and powerful visuals that enrich understanding of an abstract truth.
Selma does what King worked so hard to accomplish: prick the national consciousness on the reality of racial struggles and injustice.