“This voting thing is just gonna have to wait,” President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) tells Dr. King (David Oyelowo) in a private meeting at the White House. It’s a scene that comes early in the new, powerful drama, Selma, and it immediately highlights the differences between the two men. It also sets the tone of what is to come.
In 1965, during a dangerous and often violent three month period, Dr. Martin Luther King spearheaded a campaign for equal rights; in this case, equal voting rights, culminating with a historic walk in Alabama, from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. “We negotiate, we demonstrate, we resist!” exclaims Dr. King.
That meeting in Washington between the visionary Dr. King and the President of the United States is telling. It illustrates the difference in priorities and the urgency with which both men felt how things needed to be done. To the politician, there were always issues that needed to be tackled but in order to maximize a certain political advantage those issues had to come in a certain order and at a certain time. Even though the president asks Dr. King, “I wanna help. Tell me how,” his intention is to put whatever Dr. King requests on his lengthy to-do list; something to be confronted at a later date. For Dr. King, the issue of the vote for all black Americans is something that cannot wait. There are people dying in the streets for what they believe is their right. Politics and political advantage be damned; this issue needs to be addressed now.
In some quarters Selma is described as a bio pic, but that’s not exactly true. Certainly we get to know the man – British actor David Oyellowo magnificently displays all the doubts and fears plus the ferocious, passionate force of the civil rights leader in a way the cinema has rarely shown – but the film itself centers on an event; an event of such undeniable historical importance it’s hard to believe it was something that occurred not hundreds of years ago to be studied and discussed from the pages of a high-school almanac but in our lifetime, just fifty years ago. In the timeline of important American historical events, what happened in Alabama was just around the corner. The cement has yet to dry.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act was signed. It legally desegregated the South, but there were areas determined to cling to the way things had always been. The rest of the world may be changing, but not Alabama; not while the rascist Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) was still in charge. Attempting to register to vote – now the legal right of all Americans – was something difficult, even dangerous.
In an effective though infuriating opener, a black woman called Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) tries to register. The white government clerk tells Annie to stop stirring trouble, but the woman insists on her rights. After asking a ridiculous test question regarding state politics that no one – either white or black – could possibly answer, the clerk stamps Denied on Annie’s application and sends her away. Humiliated and in tears, Annie leaves the building. The clerk could not care less. In its way, that one scene is as potent as some of the more violent, dramatic incidents we will later witness when the club-wielding bully boys of Sheriff Jim Clark’s department beat protesters at the slightest provocation, either outside the entrance to the county courthouse or on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Before the march begins we see the behind-the-scenes machinations of how the leaders of America approached things. “King is a degenerate,” J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) tells the president. “We can dismantle the family.” Later, Dr. King receives a disturbing, anonymous call incorporating a wire-tapped recording supposedly of the doctor in the middle of a vocally, passionate tryst with another woman. “That wasn’t me,” a saddened Dr.King assures his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo). “I know,” Coretta returns, equally saddened. “I know what you sound like.”
And it’s not just the larger picture that the film exposes. There’s power in the details and the introduction of minor characters and their involvement with the cause. Even at the fade out, just ahead of the credits, we get to read character updates with information that continues to stun. A 39 year-old white woman called Viola Liuzzo (Tara Ochs) marched with Dr.King in support. Later, while driving some fellow activists back to the Montgomery airport she was shot and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Look her up. You’ll learn that one of the Klansman was an FBI informant and that later, the FBI is thought to have leaked information that attempted to smear and discredit the memory of this Detroit housewife and mother of five, information that was never proved.
Selma is a film of great importance made with a sense of realism that is startling. It’s a history lesson, yes, but it’s no lecture. Director Ava DuVernay has crafted an emotionally draining production with skill that can only be described as essential viewing. This is award season. Oscar beckons.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 127 Minutes Overall Rating: 9 (out of 10)