My wife Diana and I celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday by seeing the movie Selma. It brought back many memories of our civil rights work in the sixties. She was at the iconic March on Washington, and I marched with Dr. King in Frankfort, Kentucky. I also picketed the Lexington, Kentucky, federal building during the Selma crisis (along with several friends, including famed agrarian writer Wendell Berry), and I became a community organizer in Georgia. In 1968, in Atlanta, wearing a black armband, I stood in a long line and walked past Dr. King’s open casket following his assassination.
Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, is set in 1965 and tells the story of King’s opportunistic use of a moral issue, the bald-faced denial of voting rights to African Americans in Selma, Alabama, in order to accomplish a political and legal end, the implementing of federal voting rights legislation. It was high-risk—actually costing lives—but in the end it was a major achievement of the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement headed by Dr. King. (It did not immediately end such abuse, but Selma and the law paved the way for other voting-rights confrontations, like one I was part of in Carroll County, Georgia, in 1968.)
British actor David Oyelowo effectively plays King famously delivering inspirational oratories, but he is less effective in creating the more mundane moments, as if King’s charismatic personality and active intelligence somehow went on sabbatical. At least we were shown everyday acts: King eagerly eating a meal, suffering doubts, engaging in light moments, taking out the garbage, quietly smoking a cigarette. More of an attempted deification would have been a mistake, because real greatness—like that of Martin Luther King Jr.—is always that of a real person.
There is much fine acting in the film. Tom Wilkinson is excellent as President Lyndon Johnson. The press has repeated criticisms of the film for portraying Johnson as less accepting of King’s goals than he actually was. However, each leader had his own political constraints and those—along with the debate over them—have been captured in behind-the-scenes recreations in Selma.
Oprah Winfrey (who once sympathetically smiled at me as I tongue-lashed a defender of phony miracles on her talk show) was not only one of four producers of Selma; she also had a small but crucial role in it. She ably played a determined resident, Annie Cooper, who was so prepared to pass the notoriously made-up Selma voting test that she knew precisely how many county judges there were: sixty-seven. Undeterred, the fascist registrar—who obviously intended all along to thwart her—quickly improvised, “What are their names?” This scene set the stage for the ensuing drama about the constitutional rights of people of all colors and persuasions to vote.
Emphasizing the trueness of the Selma story (while noting in print that the film was not a documentary), Selma skillfully utilizes actual 1965 black-and-white newsreel footage. Coupled with the color scenes that recreate the violent attacks on peaceful marchers (a long list of stunt men and women appears in the credits), this helps bring a convincing reality to the movie. It is, of course, the reality of hatred, as well as, in the end, of the triumph over much of it.
Rating: Four wooden nickels (out of four)