1965…that’s 50 years ago. I’ve learned about the Civil Rights Movement in American Studies, engaged in class discussions, written essays, and taken tests, but it never felt real until I saw Selma, a historical film directed by Ava DuVernay that depicts the tragedies, defeats, and finally triumphs that surrounded Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC’s march from Selma, Alabama to state capital Montgomery.
“Heart-wrenching” is the most apt description I can come up with for Selma. This is in part due to the plot because, well, the Jim Crowe era was heartbreaking. But it can also be attributed to the casting. Martin Luther King Jr., resurrected by David Oyelowo, regards each scene with compassion and a fragile facade of dignity that appears ready to tear and unleash the anger that trembles beneath his gentlemanly exterior. Governor George Wallace, played by Tim Roth, embodies the contempt and ignorance of the white racists during this period. Oprah Winfrey says fifteen words in one of the first scenes of the movie, then remains silent for the rest of the film, and her tortured expressions made my eyes water nevertheless. It’s these actors that make Selma feel so real.
It’s also a great history lesson. The whole “non-violent protest” idea can sound wimpy or passive, but there are many scenes in Selma that depict MLK and his associates strategizing ahead of their next march. And at the end of the film, the expected biographical blurbs pop up with as the background music says something along the lines of, “you reap what you sow.” Suffice to say, Selma is not boring in the slightest. Peaceful scenes and strategic meetings are cut off abruptly by explosions, fights, and gunshots.
A large amount of controversy has arisen due to director DuVernay’s apparently misleading portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson’s outlook on the civil rights movement. Rather than working with MLK throughout the film, as some historians and LBJ apologist claim he did, Selma shows him turning down MLK’s plea for civil rights legislation. This tarnishes the movie’s historical credibility but does not interfere with the message it conveys.
The film fits pretty well into the “dramatic story of a historical figure who is an inspiration to us all” genre. Anyone who has seen Mandela, The King’s Speech, Lincoln, even 12 Years a Slave, should see Selma. But if you’re more interested in The Expendables trilogy, go watch Taken 3.