AFI Fest 2014: ‘Selma’ as a political chess game with a King

There’s a moment that establishes the savagery of the era in “Selma.” If your heart isn’t shattered, you may need an emotional cardiologist. This is a movie that every American should see.

The world had already recognized Martin Luther King, Jr. by then. The movie actually begins with King (David Oyelowo) and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) preparing to take center stage as the world watches him accept his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

King had already led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. He had been part of the Albany movement, the Birmingham campaign where he was arrested and jailed (his 13th arrest). He had already made the 1963 March on Washington. His activity put him under FBI surveillance.

King had been to Selma before, in December of 1964,  to aid the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who were working on voter registration but a judge had issued in injunction against more than three people affiliated with the Civil Rights Movement from meeting together. King would defy that when he spoke in Brown Chapel on 2 January 1965.

The movie “Selma” also quickly establishes how ridiculous the voter registration rules were for African Americans in the Deep South. A woman, Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), obviously of working class, must answer a long questionnaire and answer questions I’d guess most audience members could not and then remain mentally strong when the paternalistic challenge is issued, kindly requesting they not get too uppity. But in the South being uppity simply meant asking to be treated as a citizen, equal in privileges to the white people of the region.

Yet the moment that I’m talking about is one cast in a glow of bright yellow. Girls laughing and chatting as they descend a stairway. The conversation is almost innocent, but it is about hair–a topic that is already becoming politicized. Yet the girls aren’t talking about civil rights; they are talking about fashion. The girls include Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins–all 14-year-old–and the 11-year-old Denise McNair and their friends. Those four girls will die when a bomb planted in the girls restroom detonated at 10:19 a.m. in the 16th Street Baptist Church 15 September 2963. King spoke before over 8,000 mourners at the funeral for three of the girls. Justice wouldn’t be served until 1977 and 2002.

The bombing took place in Birmingham, Alabama. It was actually the third bombing in that city in 11 days, a terrorist reaction to the federal order to end segregation in the Alabama school system. The state governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) was determined to keep segregation pitting the feds against the state, but the federal government was slow to send in the troops. The president, Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinsons) wants King to wait.

Paul Webb’s script makes clear that the Selma Voting Rights Movement which organized the Selma to Montgomery marches was not the work of one man, even one exceptional man like King. It was the work of many different people, mostly men, but not always. We meet John Lewis (Stephan James) of SNCC, Reverend Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), James Bevel (Common), Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson)  and James Orange (Omar J. Dorsey) of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint) of the American Civil Rights Movement in Selma. Malcolm X also (Nigel Thatch) helps with the political maneuvering.

The first Selma-to-Montgomery March was led by John Lewis of SNCC and Williams with an estimated 525 to 600 marchers, starting at the Brown Chapel AME Church and ended at Edmund Pettus Bridge where the marchers were met by Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) and state troopers in what would later be called Bloody Sunday.

The importance of the news media, particularly television, is made clear when images of Bloody Sunday spark national outrage and brings people of all races and religions to Selma.

King wasn’t present at the first march, but led the “Turnaround Tuesday” march (9 March 2014) of approximately 2,500 people which ended at the the same bridge, a balance of protest over Bloody Sunday and respect for Federal District Court Judge Frank Minis Johnson’s restraining order.

If the deaths of four girls were a catalyst, then so were other deaths. In February, Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) would be killed in a restaurant while protecting his mother after a protest. In March, white Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston, James Reeb (Jeremy Strong) would die after being beaten by four KKK members. Reeb was one of the people who came in response to King’s call and had been on the Turnaround Tuesday march.

National outrage forced LBJ to meet with Wallace and draft a voting rights bill that he then outlines on live TV on 15 March 1965. With the judge ruling in their favor on 17 March, a victorious third march on Sunday, 21 March gathered about 8,000 people, including Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel and Maurice Davis.

Director Ava DuVernay wrote and directed the 2008 documentary on South Central artists who reject gangster rap and take hip hop in a new direction,”This Is the Life.” And her “Selma” has a documentary feel. Bradford Young’s cinematography gives us backlit scenes, scenes where the light source is ostensibly from a cheap hotel lamp and scenes where the faces of the actors are thus obscured by shadows.

“Selma” reminds us that to make such a monumental change required the collaborative efforts of many men and women, a sharp contrast to the one-man crusade portrayal of Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game.” While some try to contrast King to Malcolm X, this movie shows how they worked together for a common goal.

The script incorporates information that clearly came from the FBI surveillance. “Selma” reminds us that King was flawed, he made mistakes and his family suffered from them as well as the constant threat to their lives delivered in anonymous phone calls. Coretta was brave and she was steady and at times, steadier than King. And yet this was only one milestone in a long journey.  DuVernay takes a victory snapshot and deconstructs it, telling us with a few lines what became of each participant.

For victory, the African American in Alabama needed help from out of state, from people who were not suffering under the voting restrictions. That’s an important message that if we want things to change for us, we must be concerned with the injustice suffered by people of other races, religions and sexes. Victory came in Selma because African Americans stood up to domestic terrorism and found friends of all colors and religions and did it with non-violence.

This is a movie that every American should see. It can remind us where we have been so we better understand where we are now. It can show movie makers that to change history requires many men and women working together–not just a rugged or determined individual. It can remind us of the strength of faith and the need to reach across the boundaries of race, religion and even region to make change.  It can remind us of the place news media had in changing the opinion of the world when covering something more important than the latest gossip. It can remind us that even our heroes are flawed and even the flawed can rise to be heroes. “Selma” is a powerful movie that should move you to tears, make your burn with anger at injustice and ache for the lost lives and opportunities.

Selma isn’t dead history. “Selma” is about how black lives matter and if we can embrace non-violence and be patient, how we can move forward even after Ferguson.



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