Atsushi Nishijima, Paramount Pictures
Left to right, foreground: Colman Domingo plays Ralph Abernathy, David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., AndrÉ Holland plays Andrew Young, and Stephan James plays John Lewis in “Selma.”
The civil rights movement had a host of iconic moments, from Rosa Parks’ stand on a public bus to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
In “Selma,” director Ava DuVernay shares one of the movement’s key flashpoints, the historic march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery in 1965. It’s an event that showcases the triumph of the era, as well as its calculation.
We pick up the story just after King (played by David Oyelowo) has received the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. He’s already given his “I Have a Dream” speech, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has already been signed.
But the job isn’t finished. Blacks may technically have the right to vote, but forces in the South are conspiring to block them from exercising it.
King appeals to President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) for help, but Johnson has “other fish to fry.” So the civil rights icon decides to force the issue by zeroing in on one egregious offender: Selma, Alabama.
The plan is a 50-mile march from Selma to confront Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) at the state capitol in Montgomery.
“Selma,” then, becomes three things. On the surface, it’s the story of how King and his supporters overcame official and unofficial adversity to make the march. On a deeper level, it’s a portrait of the civil rights icon. It’s also a fascinating look at the machinations of political protest.
The story is a compelling one. It took multiple attempts to successfully make the march, and the violence and bloodshed along the way made for some of the most vivid imagery of the era.
The depictions of brutality aren’t especially graphic, but even if viewers are spared the sight of blood, skillful editing and a blunt soundtrack get the point across with authority.
The first major encounter — a televised clash between marchers and state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge — is especially effective and serves as a sharp example of how media coverage rallied the cause.
“Selma” communicates a deep respect for King, but the film doesn’t shy away from showing his weaknesses. A major subplot has the FBI harassing King, under President Johnson’s orders, and its efforts force the Nobel laureate to confess his infidelities to his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo).
King’s journey here is more than a mere 50-mile march. Once he arrives in Selma, King declares his intention to “negotiate, demonstrate and resist.” Non-violence may be the official policy, but King also understands that the best way to get attention is to provoke the other side into violent overreaction, and Selma Police Chief Jim Clark (Stan Houston) is happy to oblige.
But as the violence and drama play out, King is forced to deal with the reality of this tactic. When King encounters a grieving grandfather who just lost his grandson in a riot, you aren’t sure if he’ll welcome the reverend or hold him to blame. Ultimately the debate about ends justifying means becomes just as powerful of a moral theme in the film as the racism that forced it.
Oyelowo does a good job of communicating the dignity of “Selma’s” protagonist, and Ejogo’s portrayal of King’s wife is just as effective. Oprah Winfrey has a supporting role as activist Annie Lee Cooper, and veteran British actor Roth does well as Wallace, even if he initially feels like a strange choice.
The biggest source of controversy may be Wilkinson’s interpretation of Johnson, who is painted as a conniving politician who isn’t all that interested in the moral high ground of King’s movement. DuVernay has already taken heat for this portrayal, and “Selma” clearly divides up its good guys and bad guys. (A song over the closing credits that addresses recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, may polarize reaction to the film.)
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But taken for what it is, “Selma” is an interesting and engaging glimpse of the civil rights movement at one of its most powerful moments. It won’t be the civil rights movie to define all civil rights movies, but it carries a worthwhile message.
“Selma” is rated PG-13 for violence, some mild sexual content, and profanity, including two uses of the “F-word.”
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.