The historical drama Selma attempts to address the issue of ignorance and silence by creating an eye-opening look at the civil rights marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (portrayed by David Oyelowo). Director Ava DuVernay masterfully captures the time and tensions of the 1960s while centering the heaviest of burdens on Dr. King.
Here is a brief synopsis of the story of Selma:
SELMA is the story of a movement. The film chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition. The epic march from Selma to Montgomery culminated in President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant victories for the civil rights movement. Director Ava DuVernay’s SELMA tells the real story of how the revered leader and visionary Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and his brothers and sisters in the movement prompted change that forever altered history.
As with most movies in this genre, audiences will be taken aback by the atrocities depicted in the film, including violent death, abusive authority figures, and unfiltered, derogatory language. In a scene with President Johnson (portrayed by Tom Wilkinson), Governor George Wallace (portrayed by Tim Roth) summarizes his inaction to allow African Americans the right to vote by the fact that he doesn’t yield the power to change the system. President Johnson, knowing that Wallace is merely forgoing any blame, leaves the matter of Dr. King, and his marches, in his hands. This reoccurring theme of silence and neutrality is one that pervades Selma and is best summarized by this quote:
Wallace, along with many other Americans, decided to remain silent on the matter of civil rights for every man. Through every circumstance and consequence, many would’ve thought that the historical icon, Martin Luther King, would be unwavering in his path. However, Director DuVernay humanizes Dr. King by allowing his character to possess the same struggles and doubts as any normal person would. Those human qualities, coupled with the rising tensions in the King household, portray a more relatable man that struggled with the weight of his every decision.
Despite the attention to detail that the film contains, including the logged whereabouts of Dr. King and his followers, Mark K. Updegrove, a leading historian from the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum, criticized the mischaracterization of President Johnson and his relationship with Dr. King. In his article on Politico.com, Updegrove had this to say on the matter:
The film certainly portrays President Johnson in a poor way, depicting his frustration and anger with Dr. King and his actions. Updegrove’s article doesn’t set out to criticize the film as a whole, but merely critique the misrepresentation of the president and his intentions. Mark Updegrove goes on to state that if Johnson had included the voting rights component in the legislation, Congress would have rejected the bill. Knowing this, Johnson withheld this portion of the legislation for a more opportune time. This came later, when Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Despite this critique, Selma is an inspiring and insightful look at the struggles faced during the 1960s.
Selma‘s star-studded cast, including David Oyelowo, Oprah Winfrey, Common, Cuba Gooding Jr., Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, and many others, churn out some of the most emotional and effortful performances of the year. And it seems that critics and fans alike can agree on the quality of this film; Selma was dubbed “the best reviewed film of the year” by Rotten Tomatoes. This honor, and other accolades, can be viewed on the Selma movie website.
What are your thoughts on the film?