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It Does Overcome

Paramount Pictures
128 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson

Although it’s been over 40 years since Martin Luther King, Jr., died, many people would be surprised to know that King never was a major character in a dramatic motion picture before 2014. He appeared as a minor character in movies like Ali and The Butler, and Paul Winfield portrayed him brilliantly in a TV miniseries, but he’s never been the central figure in any motion picture before. Director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo rectify this oversight in the brilliant new movie Selma.


As its title implies, Selma depicts one of the most significant events in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, the March, 1965, protest march from Selma to Montgomery, AL, that was planned and organized by King (Oyelowo) that led to the adoption of the Voting Rights Act. The “march” actually consisted of three separate marches, only the last of which actually got past the outskirts of the town of Selma itself. It was the first march, which ended in one of the most violent and brutal confrontations between police and protestors of the entire civil rights movement era, that most people remember.


Even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, blacks faced enormous hurdles in registering to vote, especially in the south. Various laws were arbitrarily and systemically applied to disenfranchise black voters. In Selma’s opening scene, real life activist Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) falls victim to one such law when she attempts to register to vote, and the registrar “tests” her competence to be a voter by requiring her to name all 67 county clerks in the state of Alabama (obviously, the same test wasn’t given to potential white voters). To stop these types of disenfranchising tactics, King visits President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who has just been re-elected by a huge margin, and asks the President to propose federal legislation banning discriminatory hurdles to black voting. Johnson, however, demurs, not wanting to take on another civil rights issue so early in his new term.


King and several of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference lieutenants, including Andrew Young (Andre Holland) and Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), go to Selma and begin planning protests. Their goal is to provoke the authorities to respond with excessive force, gaining sympathy from liberal and moderate whites for their cause. Sadly, they accomplish this goal a little too well, as one protestor, Jimmy Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) is murdered by a white policeman. That death energizes the black community, and King organizes the first Selma-to-Montgomery march, knowing full well that the police plan to stop the march before it gets going.


The major television networks send reporters and camera crews to cover the first march, and the nation is shocked to see police use billy clubs and tear gas, brutally beating many of the marchers. King himself is not at the march, but supporters including John Lewis (Stephan James) are injured. As a result of the violence, President Johnson asks both King and Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) to tone down their rhetoric. King instead plans a second march, and this time many white supporters join the march. When the police stand aside to let the marchers pass, King then cancels the march, but that night a white minister who had participated in the aborted march is murdered as well. Finally, King leads a third march that does reach Montgomery, and an embarrassed Johnson introduces legislation that becomes the Voting Rights Act two days later.


Although Selma provides an in-depth, detailed look at the events surrounding the marches and the people involved, it is first and foremost a movie about the man at the center of the events, Martin Luther King, Jr. In much the same manner that Steven Spielberg revealed the character of one great leader in the context of a specific set of political events in Lincoln, Ava DuVernay offers insight into King the leader here. However, she also shows viewers King the father and husband as well. He isn’t a saint; the movie acknowledges his affairs that deeply hurt Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo). DuVernay also highlights King’s indecision and uncertainty that led to the cancellation of the second march, as, for once, he was unable to figure out what his opponents were planning. Selma has other personal insights as well, such as a scene in which an insomniac King calls singer Mahalia Jackson and asks her to cheer him up with one of her gospel songs. Those moments of humanity and weakness sometimes feel a bit overdone and soap operatic, but they make King’s strengths that much more evident.


The civil rights movement needed a strong leader in 1965 for a number of reasons. Many whites (and some blacks) shared the feeling expressed in the movie by President Johnson that the movement had accomplished its major goals and that the nation, especially the South, needed time to adjust to the new era. On the other hand, some in the movement wanted their leaders to be more aggressive and confrontational. Some also thought that King was more committed to headlines and the limelight than doing the hard, unglamorous work of actually getting blacks registered. All the while, they faced a number of increasingly more desperate whites trying to hold onto their power by any means necessary.


Against that background, King emerges as one of the strongest leaders the country has seen, a man who led not by dint of elected position but by moral authority alone. David Oyelowo is brilliant as King, showing his quiet strength and empathetic demeanor, as well as the masterfully persuasive speechmaking abilities. For legal reasons, DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb couldn’t use King’s actual speeches in Selma, instead they create similar language that Olewayo renders in King’s typical style, starting calmly and simply, then building to an emotional crescendo. King delivers three speeches during the course of the movie, the last on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol, and audiences will feel like standing and applauding at the end of each one (which they did at the end of the final speech at the screening I attended).


Selma is much more than a character study though. The movie provides one of the best examinations that I’ve ever seen of political marketing as it existed in the 1960s and still exists now. King’s goal was the adoption of a crucial piece of legislation, and to do so successfully, he needed to market the civil rights movement to the American public at large, in a way that impelled the public to make their leaders take action. At every step of the way (unlike in an earlier failed protest campaign in Albany, GA), he outsmarted the hostile white Southern power base, as exemplified by George Wallace, persuaded his own supporters to back his strategy, and outmaneuvered the master political manipulator Lyndon Johnson. Ava DuVernay’s background is in marketing, and it shows here. She is able to explain and present King’s strategy far better than any explanation ever offered by Don Draper on Mad Men.


Selma’s depiction of some historical events has been criticized, particularly its treatment of Lyndon Johnson as being reluctant to push the Voting Rights Act. However, Selma is not a documentary and should not be judged by documentary standards. Instead, it’s a powerful (if occasionally a bit melodramatic) portrayal of a great leader and an important event in American history that does a great job of showing the events from the viewpoint of all the participants, black and white, important and not, good and evil. The events in Selma took place fifty years ago, but racial issues in America remain today, albeit not as clearcut. Selma serves as a vital guide and reminder for today’s audiences, to show today’s where we’ve come from as a nation and the type of leadership that was required to get us here.   

Read other reviews of Selma:


Selma (2014) on IMDb