Released in 2014. Written by Paul Webb. Directed by Ava DuVernay. Starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, and Carmen Ejogo. Running time 2 hours 8 minutes.
It’s 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. accepts his Nobel Peace Prize for his work in civil rights; meanwhile, the South continues to struggle with desegregation and Black voter’s rights.
As a group of little girls walk down the stairs of their church talking about the beautiful and stylish Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) a bomb goes off, blowing the church to bits, and killing all four of them. Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) is denied her voter’s registration by the white man (Clay Chappell) behind the registrar’s counter.
Dr. King (David Oyelowo) meets with President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to talk about voter inequality and how impossible it is for Blacks to register to vote. President Johnson professes his support of Dr. King but claims voter equality will have to wait as there are more pressing issues at hand across America. Dr. King decides to go to Selma and march for their rights. J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) and Lee White (Giovanni Ribisi) council the President about what to do and how to go about it.
Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) are adamantly opposed to desegregation and Black voter’s rights and do all they can to suppress the Black population with violence and threats.
Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), Andrew Young (André Holland), James Orange (Omar J. Dorsey), and Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson) show up to Selma and meet with James Bevel (Common), and Joe Lewis (Stephan James) & James Forman (Trai Byers) from SNCC. Also present are Baynard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint), Frederick Reese (E. Roger Mitchell), Richie Jean Jackson (Niecy Nash), Rev. C.T. Vivian (Corey Reynolds), and Rev. Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce). They agree marching to Selma’s courthouse will give Black voter right’s the attention it needs and through peaceful protests, they will succeed.
They make it to the Selma courthouse with whites spitting on them and calling them names as they walk through the streets. The police are there blocking the entrance and the chief tells them there are too many. The Black group of people in the front kneel down and sit and Dr. King says they’ll wait. An officer comes down to force an elderly black man, Cager Lee (Henry G. Sanders) to the ground which prompts Annie Cooper to hit the policeman. Chaos ensues. Dr. King is arrested with many other Black marchers. While in jail, Malcom X (Nigel Thatch) meets with Coretta to offer help in distracting the police away from Dr. King’s march and Coretta relays this offer; however, Dr. King refuses Malcom X due to their conflicting methods of protesting.
Dr. King’s group meets again and agrees to try again for a night march. Gov. Wallace, and Sheriff Clark decide to ambush the march since there will be no media or cameras present. The Black marchers are beaten by the white police and townspeople. Jimmie Lee Jackson (LaKeith Stanfield) runs with his mother Viola (Charity Jordan) and grandfather Cager to a diner to escape the beating. The police track them down in the diner, beat his mother and grandfather and shoot Jimmie–killing him.
Dr. King speaks at Jimmie’s funeral calling Blacks to stand up together and march for their rights. Dr. King meets with President Johnson again to demand he do what’s right but President Johnson is full of excuses.
With Dr. King out of town, the group decides to march from Selma to Montgomery. When they get just past the center point of the bridge, the police and armed forces waiting in Montgomery wage a battle with batons, tear gas, and weapons. Many are beaten and it’s all captured on television. Dr. King is saddened by this and heads back to Selma. He gives a powerful speech calling all people, Black and white, for the support of Black voter’s rights encouraging them to march together.
President Johnson tries to make a deal with Dr. King to wait and march another time as he cannot guarantee their safety. Dr. King refuses. President Johnson meets with Gov. Wallace who refuses to back down.
People from all over come to Selma to march with Dr. King, many of them clergy from various faiths.As they walk, more people join the march, and archival footage of the march is included to show the historical event. As they get to the same spot on the bridge as before, Dr. King stops and waits. The police chief waits. After a moment, the chief orders his troops to stand down and they move to the side. Dr. King doesn’t trust the situation, kneels and prays for guidance, then gets up and walks back toward Selma leaving the march group upset and confused.
Later that night, James Reeb (Jeremy Strong),a clergyman from Boston is killed by a white supremacist. The marches are halted and those involved in the marches get their chance to testify in court before Judge Frank Johnson (Martin Sheen) with their attorney Fred Gray (Cuba Gooding Jr.). Judge Johnson grants Dr. King and the group their marches are legal prompting President Johnson to send a bill to Congress to end voter restrictions in all states.
What I Liked
This film is a bit of a roller coaster ride with emotion. It starts off real nice with Dr. King and Coretta having a private moment discussing his place in the world disguised by the conversation of the tie he’s wearing. It’s clear he’s doing his best and what he thinks is right and God’s will; however, he struggles with the notoriety or not being seen as one of the people. Then smacks you in the face with reality as the scene with the little girls ends with an explosion.
Every time Blacks try to do something and things start to look like it’s going to work, the whites come in and destroy it either through violence or legislative barriers such as voting vouchers, poll tax, and having their names and addresses published in the paper to scare them away from registering to vote.
The night march was expertly filmed as it showed the marchers quietly moving through town with determined yet scared looks on their faces. When the whites come, the violence is filmed against shadow and light to show the brutality and chaos. The slow-motion of Jimmie Lee Jackson going down after being shot felt like a dream in the worst way. Like you can’t believe it’s happening in the middle of a crowded diner but it is. Likewise, the march across the bridge and the beating which occurred was done through the haze of tear gas which accurately depicted what these marchers experienced was horrifying and brutal.
There are times when the film holds you a moment longer to let you sit in the uncomfortable moments like the scenes when Dr. King is doubting himself and questioning whether he is the right person for this. The scene when Dr. King and Coretta are discussing their marriage feels so natural and terrifying. Annie trying to register her vote was disheartening on so many levels. I could not pass the test she is given. The scenes between Dr. King and the President show there’s more to what we are privy to know as well as how and why decisions are made at that level. The film moves along but doesn’t let you float past the important dialogue and barriers Dr. King and Blacks faced daily and still face in 2020.
Ava DuVernay is one of those directors who knows how to carefully construct a piece of history with both sides of the story in a way which supports the facts without preaching or justifying or condemning. The casualness of the white population’s willingness to suppress the Black vote and their willingness to act so horrible against the Black population was well done and I commend those involved in the making of the film as it could not have been easy to make these scenes work without truth, faith, and trust in DuVernay’s leadership and all of the cast, extras, and crew to make a safe environment. Her use of actual footage was perfectly weaved into the march across the bridge which brought another layer of historical support without losing the film at present.
What I Wished Was Better
I wish white people weren’t so hard headed and full of fear which has nothing to do with the actual film but just in general. As for the film, I have nothing to change or issues with it’s execution.
I knew some things about the march in Selma but not enough which made this film even more important to watch. The timing was right to watch it now in light of what is going on the world regarding racial justice. I knew of the brutality Blacks faced during this period of history but not the barriers they faced with voting, the push back of the President and other governmental leaders. It made me shocked and sad for humanity that anyone had to experience this and that while the laws may have changed, the barriers are still there with different names for them. While this film won the Oscar for Best Original Song and nominated for Best Picture, it was over-looked in all the other categories. I cannot help but think it was yet another attempt for white people to keep Blacks held back. It certainly deserved to be nominated; especially when I googled the nominees for that year and found how little I remembered the films…This film would have been ground-breaking on multiple levels had it been nominated and/or won.
As a white person, it’s hard to watch the brutality and hatred toward people of color throughout history. Not only because of the violence aspect but because of the complete fear-based reasoning behind it which never occurs to me to be justifiable. In any way, shape, or form. Giving people the right to do something, like vote or get married or anything doesn’t diminish or take the right from someone else. As I watch Selma, and other films highlighting civil rights, I am reminded of my whiteness and straightness and the fact I have never been challenged to really fight for anything I wasn’t born with the right to. My friendships have been and are more like a quiet ally. The challenge presented to me now is will I stand next to my friends of color and sexual orientation quietly still or with my full voice?
I give Selma a 5 out of 5 🙂 Available to stream. Watch the trailer below:
Fun Facts: Ava DuVernay rewrote the majority of the original script and recast all but Dr. King’s part when she took over as director. By 1985, Gov. George Wallace renounced his view on segregation apologizing to Joe Lewis as well as appointing a number of Black individuals to state positions. Six other directors were attached to this film before Ava DuVernay.