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Civil Rights Marchers

Movie Review - Selma

The Struggle To Win Voting Rights

Selma - A Film About American Social History Is Released In Time For The Holiday Observing The Birthday Of Martin Luther King, Jr., The Leader Of The Struggle To Win Voting Rights For All

The choice of “Selma” as the title of this movie is revealing. This is the story of one of the most famous and effective marches in a movement that was expressed primarily through marches and demonstration.The march from Selma, Alabama to the State Capitol in Montgomery -- a distance of fifty miles -- was instrumental in motivating both the Congress and the President to enact the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a major piece of Civil Rights legislation which continues to be fought over and to have an impact on Federal law enforcement. Because the focus of the film is on the Selma to Montgomery March, named the Selma March for the city in which it began, it is a portrait of all of the leaders who drove its timing and shape. The portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. is that of someone who is first among equals, rather than the sole or primary leader of the march.

Throughout the film, the March becomes a character struggling to survive. Against great odds, the March wants to take place, yet the obstacles are many. President Lyndon Baines Johnson (superbly portrayed by Tom Wilkinson) is opposed to the March, because it doesn’t fit with his ideal timetable for introducing voting rights legislation the following year or later. Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) opposes the March, because he fears the way his state will be portrayed by the violence that is almost certain to result. Sheriff Jim Clark is determined to stop the March, by violent means if necessary. The men and women who are planning the march are themselves uncertain if the timing is right and if they have the means to succeed. Even though many viewers may know the outcome, it often feels as if the March will not happen.

Selma portrays the group of men and women who head the major civil rights organizations as leaders who often clash over tactics and goals. To paint this portrait, the movie presents an ensemble cast of powerful personalities. David Oyelowo is brilliant as Reverend King, and the film makes King the most charismatic among those leading the movement that will eventually force the passage of the Voting Rights Act. When King is uncertain of whether the time is right for the March, the other civil rights leaders encourage him and bolster his resolve.

The film shows both conflict and collaboration between President Johnson and Dr. King. The two men are clearly partners in trying to force Congress to pass civil rights legislation, and yet they also conflict over matters of timing and tactics. The scenes between King and Johnson are among the most tense and exciting in the film, and these scenes have provoked controversy over the role and attitudes of President Johnson. Some historians and Johnson Administration veterans have weighed in on the question of whether the President was forced by Dr. King to push the voting rights legislation or whether it was always part of his plan. Another question concerns whether FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover conducted surveillance on Dr. King entirely on his own initiative, or if he was encouraged to do so by Johnson. These debates are sure to generate increased attention to the film, even while some commentators disagree with its portrayal of President Johnson. Fighting over depictions of historical events is a blood sport, since it often determines opinions on the policies pursued by past and future leaders. In this case, Johnson’s priority appeared to be the policies that made up his War on Poverty, while King’s priority was to achieve full access to the ballot box.

One of the film’s most powerful scenes is the one with which it opens. Annie Lee Cooper, played by Oprah Winfrey, is trying to register to vote in Alabama. The voting official asks her question after question that she is able to answer correctly. Finally, he asks her to name all of the county judges in the State. When she is unable to do so, she is turned away. With this scene, the film establishes the importance of Federal legislation to achieve voting rights across the South.

Everything in the film builds toward the climax of the actual March. Once all of the planning, preparation, and legal maneuvering is done, it is time for the March to begin. Here the conflict is between the marchers on one side, led by a few but including thousands of African-Americans and some white supporters, and, on the other side, Selma Sheriff Jim Clark and his deputies. The depiction of this conflict is the film’s ultimate triumph. One might even call the bridge into Selma one of the film’s supporting characters, since it lifts the marchers up and then drops them into the waiting attack by their opponents.

In the scenes showing the March, the film mixes in historical footage from the actual 1965 march. A college classmate of mine, Marshall Bloom, the editor of our campus newspaper, took part in the March. I was elated to see him walking across the bridge, smiling and proud to be part of what he surely knew was one of the greatest moments in our nation’s history.

Selma was directed by Ava DuVernay and is her first big-budget feature. She is sure to be among the contenders for Best Director honors, as will be the film for Best Picture awards. The script was written by Paul Webb, also in his first major film script. Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta Scott King with great reserve and dignity. Among the other civil rights leaders, Tessa Thompson plays Diane Nash, the rapper Common is James Bevel, and Stephen James is John Lewis, now a member of Congress. It even includes Nigel Thatch at Malcolm X in a private meeting with Coretta Scott King, explaining to her that he believes his much more radical positions will move the US government to support the more moderate thrust of Dr. King. By casting actors who are less well known than the characters they portray, the story avoids being overshadowed by the reputations of the actors.

Selma is scheduled for wide-release on January 9 after having played in a few New York and Los Angeles theaters in late December.