It’s 1965 and Martin Luther King, Jr. is rightfully appalled that most African Americans in the south-east U.S. are still unable to vote, despite laws guaranteeing the right to do so. After pleading with President Johnson (without success) to pass a bill forcing the southern states to stop preventing its black people from voting, King goes to Selma, Alabama, a town which he believes would make the ideal place to attract attention to the issue. He is right and Selma (the film) tells us why he is right and shows us the price the people of Selma had to pay for King being right.
David Oyelowo is perfectly cast as King and he delivers, playing King as the strong but vulnerable and flawed leader of the civil rights movement. The rest of the cast is also very strong, though it’s curious (and questionable) that British actors were cast as President Johnson and Governor Wallace (Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth, respectively). While some scenes went on too long and others seemed unnecessary, Selma is well-paced and gripping, providing lots of suspense even when we know what will happen in the end. More importantly, Ava Duvernay knows how to connect the dots in this story by not just focusing on King but balancing the story of King, his wife, the people of Selma and the impact of the marches on people all over the U.S. (including those in high places).
Most important of all, however, is that this fifty-year-old story still resonates today and will hopefully inspire viewers to see how they can stand up and march for the issues still facing us in 2014. Yes, we have come a long way in fifty years, but governments of all kinds, in almost every country, continue to manipulate the voting process in order to limit real democracy. I live in a country where the decisions of the Prime Minister and his ruling party are often opposed by the majority of Canadians. Does that sound like democracy to anyone? And the need to have marches in support of the environment, in support of the plight of immigrants and in support of the rights of all Canadians (especially its indigenous peoples) is as strong as ever.
From a theological perspective, Selma is careful to give due attention to King’s faith and to the importance of that faith to the movement as a whole. I was also impressed by the emphasis on nonviolence as more effective and strategic than violence.
If I have a criticism of Selma, it’s only the feeling I have that it’s a little naive in the way it presents some of the conversations that took place in government circles. On the one hand, we have J. Edgar Hoover (FBI) telling Johnson that he can get rid of King permanently (which government agencies finally did three years later), which seems bold and accurate. And the film is framed from the point of view of government surveillance and interference in King’s life. Good stuff! On the other hand, some conversations felt too generous and unrealistic.
Whatever, Selma is a wonderful vital film that everyone should see and gets an easy **** and a place in my top ten of 2014 (as if I needed more in that category; list is coming within the week). My mug is up.