The year is 1981. New York is as violent as it’s ever been before. At least, that’s what we’re told.
Given the amount of films we already have that tell tales about the civil rights movement, it’s quite interesting that, until now, we haven’t had a theatrical release centered around the unofficial leader of the movement.
Sure, we’ve had TV films like King and Boycott, but Selma focuses on Martin Luther King Jr., well into his journey, as he heads to Selma to move the public’s conscience in the ongoing struggle for voting rights. So, let’s get to it.
The film begins with the man himself, Martin Luther King Jr., played by David Oyelowo, putting on his necktie. He can’t, though, so he calls in some help from his wife, Coretta, played by Carmen Ejogo. Martin isn’t a fan of dressing up so fancy-like and living high while folks back home are still struggling to get by. He also feels his brothers would laugh at him, but Coretta isn’t focused on that right now. This is Martin’s moment.
Following this, King receives the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. In a quick change of pace, the film then cuts to a church- the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, to be specific. A group of Negro children are walking downstairs to prepare for service. The girls in particular speak with fondness about Coretta Scott King and her hair. Their conversation is quickly cut short when a bomb rips through the house of worship.
After this, we cut to Oprah- I mean, Annie Lee Cooper, played by Oprah Winfrey. Annie Lee is, for the umpteenth time, filling out a voter registration questionnaire. She takes the questionnaire to the registrar, played by Clay Chappell, who starts the process of disenfranchisement- I mean, making sure she’s qualified to vote through some standard procedure, all while calling her out for causing fuss.
First, the registrar tells Annie Lee to recite the Preamble to the United States Constitution. She does. Then she’s asked to give the number of county judges in Alabama. She answers this, as well: 67. Now she just has to name them. Well, this guy is a bona-fide prick. But even if he is, his part is done and Annie Lee is denied registration.
We then head to Washington during the administration of Lyndon Johnson, played by Tom Wilkinson. Six months have passed since the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and tensions are still high in the South. Johnson’s adviser, Lee C. White, played by Giovanni Ribisi, tells the President that the country is getting there. It won’t be there anytime soon, Mr. White, I can assure you that.
King meets with President Johnson and Mr. White in the first of many discussions between the three. Johnson is glad to have ended segregation- at least, on paper- as it was a priority of his administration, not to mention picking up where Kennedy left off. More than that, Johnson prefers someone like King lead the civil rights movement as opposed to the more militant Malcolm X.
Despite Johnson’s willingness to help, he’s less enthusiastic when King tells him that now Negroes must have the right to vote. Technically, Johnson tells him, Negroes already have the right, which is true, but without federal legislation, Negroes are helpless in the face of local, county and state enforcement in the South- enforcement that still includes the poll tax and literacy tests. Well, at least the White Primaries are no more.
President Johnson isn’t as quick to move on voting rights as King would like him to be. Instead, he wants to turn his attention what he calls the War on Poverty. King says that voting rights cannot wait. There have been too many racially motivated murders going on in the South, including the deaths of those four girls in Birmingham. Worse, no Whites have been convicted because they are judged by a jury of their White peers.
Why? Because the only way to serve on a jury is to be registered to vote. Still, Johnson sets the voting rights issue aside for now. A disappointed King leaves the Oval Office. Selma it is, he says downstairs.
As we head into Selma, Alabama, we’re introduced to some of the folks who will make up the King’s team for this mission: Reverend Hosea Williams, played by Wendell Pierce, Diane Nash, played by Tessa Thompson, James Bevel, played by Common, Andrew Young, played by André Holland, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, played by Coleman Domingo, and James Orange, played by Omar J. Dorsey.
The group goes to Selma to test the waters and see if this is a good location. They’re proven right when a White patron at the hotel sucker punches King in the face. Perfect location.
Back in Washington, President Johnson receives intel from J. Edgar Hoover, played by Dylan Baker. Hoover finds King to be a moral degenerate, but the problem is that he’s a nonviolent degenerate. Hoover lets Johnson know that while King may be a nuisance, the Bureau has the ability to permanently shut him down, if need be.
If not, they can go with the wife since, due to wiretapping, the Bureau is well aware of tensions between Coretta and Martin. King returns to Atlanta to spend some time with his family, but he’s returning to Selma soon.
Coretta worries for her husband because of the folks in the Deep South that don’t take kindly to agitators like King. Martin isn’t too worried. A man like Sheriff Jim Clark is bad business and will fight to protect the Southern way of life, but that’s exactly what King wants.
That and Selma may just be a good place to die. A dry joke, but Coretta still wishes that her husband would not speak like that. At least he still has his sense of humor. That evening, Martin calls up Mahalia Jackson, played by Ledisi Young, to hear the Lord’s voice. She soothes him by singing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”
The next day, King and his entourage head to the home of Richie Jean Jackson, played by Niecy Nash, and have breakfast while discussing the ongoing tension between the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). To be specific, Reverend Williams says that SNCC feels the SCLC is invading their territory.
King, however, welcomes SNCC’s fighting spirit. And King takes his message to a congregation about the journey Negroes have taken over the past decade or so. They boycotted the buses and now it’s time to earn the privilege to vote. Too often have they been kept voiceless by the majority. No more of that. It will be a long road ahead, but it’s time to protest and, if necessary, disturb the peace.
Following this, King and company meet two SNCC members: James Forman, played by Trai Byers, and John Lewis, played by Stephan James. Both feel that they’ve been doing a good job getting the word out about registering to vote, but their efforts haven’t exactly produced results. King plans to tackle Selma with three steps: negotiate, demonstrate and resist. He recently tried this in Albany, but police chief Laurie Pritchett there played by the rules, arrested demonstrators humanely and even put them on stretchers. In short, there was no drama, which also means there were no cameras.
Now, SNCC can do its part with grassroots awareness, but in order to shape and change public opinion, they will need to raise white consciousness, as high up as President Johnson. How? By ending up on the front page of the newspaper every day. That requires drama, and Jim Clark, like Bull Connor in Birmingham, is just the man to cause some drama. The group plans to march on their defined battle zone: the courthouse. That should also attract the media’s attention.
So they do. Sheriff Jim Clark, played by Stan Houston, is waiting with his squad as the marchers approach. When they do, the members of the crowd fall to their knees and place their hands behind their backs. Clark isn’t having any of this, but as King reminds him, segregation is illegal.
Nonetheless, things get testy and a confrontation breaks out when Clark gets in the face of Jimmie Lee Jackson, played by Keith Stanfield. Jackson’s father, Cager Lee, played by Henry G. Sanders, can’t get down due to his old age. A fight breaks that ends with Annie Lee striking Clark. Well, time for everyone to go to jail.
In jail, King and Abernathy talk. What, King asks, is the prize? Negroes have been denied equality for so long, but this goes beyond Jim Crow laws. Negroes have become conditioned to believing they are second class citizens due to being broken down for so long.
So, just like the film asked in the trailer, what happens when a man says enough is enough? This process will be long and hard, but they will have to go at it, piece by piece. King realizes that the opposition will say and do anything to ruin him in order to ruin the movement. Oh, by the by, this cell may be bugged.
Later on, Coretta is set to meet with Malcolm X, played by Nigel Thatch. Tensions are high, considering the contrasting views between X and King. X admits to Coretta that, while he and King do not see eye to eye, that does not mean they need to be enemies. In fact, he has a new take on things and just wants others to see that. Coretta just doesn’t want to see all of her husband’s work undone.
Needless to say that Martin himself is not pleased with his wife going to speak with Malcolm X, not that she needed his permission or anything. He has his reasons- his movement has changed laws, while X has just stirred even more animosity towards Coloreds. Martin goes as far as saying that Coretta may be enamored, but he immediately regrets it.
Then we’re introduced to Governor George Wallace, played by Tim Roth. Wallace is not happy about the spooks becoming uppity and whatnot, not to mention them filling up the jails. It also doesn’t help that the press is eating this up. Jim Clark certainly isn’t much help since he’s a loose cannon, but no worries. Word is that the Coloreds are organizing an unofficial night march. King is all the way in California, so there won’t be any cameras around.
Indeed, a group of Negroes assemble that evening. Under the cover of night, the police officers cut power to the street lights, bear their batons and raise hell on the protesters. In the midst of chaos, Jimmie Lee Jackson manages to whisk his parents away to a restaurant and tells them to read their menus under the guise of being there the entire time.
It’s no use, though. Officers burst into the restaurant and only attack the three new visitors. During the ensuing brawl, Jimmie Lee Jackson is shot and killed. Soon after, King returns and meets with Cager Lee, but has no words to sooth him over the loss of his son.
In his next speech, King blames Jackson’s death not just on the officer who pulled the trigger, but on any and every single White lawmaker who uses their power to terrorize Negroes. But King isn’t done pointing fingers yet. No. He also blames the passive Negroes who stand by and do nothing while their brethren are beaten and terrorized into submission.
King feels the same way he felt when he heard about the shootings of President Kennedy and, most recently, Malcolm X- their lives are not worth living if they are not willing to die for their cause.
Now it’s time to pay President Johnson another visit. Before that, however, King and company need a plan. They can’t just barge in with a list of demands for widespread legislation. Do they tackle the poll tax?
How do they deal with the fact that any Negro who registers to vote will have their information published in the newspaper? And what about vouchers? To register, you need to have someone vouch for you, but if there aren’t any Negroes registered, there are no vouchers since few, if at all, White people would stick their neck out for a Colored.
King and President Johnson face off once more. King plans to lead an entourage of Negroes from Selma to Montgomery. Johnson calls it trumped up and ridiculous, not to mention it’s too far. He’s still not for taking up voting rights as his next big agenda since he has a bunch of other issues to deal with. More than that, he’s sick of King making so many demands, but the two aren’t willing to meet each other halfway at this point.
That evening, Coretta and Martin listen to a message from a caller threatening to out Martin as an evil beast. This is followed up by audio of two folks having sex. Well, I guess someone had to try and invent the first celebrity sex tape. Anyway, Coretta knows that it’s not Martin- she knows his sounds. Ha! Coretta is constantly worried for not just her husband’s safety, but for her own and their children. She isn’t used to the closeness of death wrapping around her like a fog.
To be frank, Coretta is fed up. She asks Martin two questions and wants the truth: does he love her? Yes. Does he love any of the others? No. The day of the march arrives. King must stay at home to sort out Family Matters with his wife and kids. As a result, Reverend Williams and John Lewis will lead the march. Before leaving, though, John argues with James about leadership- they have been the ones putting their lives on the line in Selma. True as that may be, the people of Selma chose King to lead, not them.
Eventually, the march reaches the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It comes to halt when everyone sees a line of police officers waiting for them. With no time for words, the protesters are told to disperse within two minutes. Good luck with that. The officers put on their masks, raise their batons, and advance toward the group. The officers pursue and beat the marchers, but not under the cover of night this time. Now, through the power of the media, the world is watching.
The wounded are cared for and others are talked out of retaliating, but King says that the group should return in droves. He appeals to everyone everywhere that cares about human rights- come to Selma!
Indeed, come on down to Alabama.
I think one of the hardest parts on making a movie about the ongoing civil rights struggle is how to frame your narrative. If you try to include too much, you run the risk of bogging down your story with too many details. Covering as much as possible is bold, but that can make a story feel scattered.
This isn’t a Civil Rights 101 class. This is one of the issues that I feel plagued last Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which I do still like, but it had more going on than necessary. At the same time, the film should have writers, actors, producers and a director passionate about the subject matter and have a lot of respect for what they want to recreate. I feel that’s what director Ava DuVernay managed to do with this film.
Selma works on many levels, and much of that has to do with how it approaches its main character. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy continues to this day and the man himself has practically been raised to sainthood because of how society chooses to view him. We don’t overlook his flaws, but we talk so much about the positive that it’s almost as if King had no flaw, blemish or spots on him.
Here, however, he’s not this saint-like figure that only speaks in long speeches or has nothing but positive thoughts on his mind. He’s not always optimistic about the future, either. This movement is much bigger than him and everyone involved. He understands that the racism of Jim Crow still runs deep in American life, despite advances made through recent legislation. He’s a strategist and needs to get his message out to as many people as possible, but that in and of itself is a challenge.
If it’s just the plights of Negroes, few people care. That is more evident by looking at who’s in charge: who governs the state? Who has final say over whom and cannot vote? Is it just the governor? The police chief? The White Citizens’ Council? Maybe all of the above, but the point, as King notes, is that all decisions are made by Whites, and they control public opinion better when they control information.
I think back to a line delivered by Sheriff Stuckey on Mississippi Burning after he and his officers pick up a Negro male who was recently dumped out of a speeding car and onto the street. As he tells the federal agents: “It ain’t right having blood on Main Street. How’d that look on the TV news?” Pretty bad, for one, but it would also draw sympathy to the plight of the Negro.
So when George Wallace throws a fit over the Bloody Sunday incident, it’s not because it happened, but because images of it were broadcast around the world, putting a spotlight on Alabama. At this point in history, Kennedy has already been assassinated, so the American public sees the power of what television can do and no longer views it as the little brother to radio or newspapers.
The film’s tone is established very well early in the film, through a good use of juxtaposing King accepting the Nobel Peace Prize against the church bombing and Annie Lee’s failed attempt at voter registration. We’re in a world where there’s still a lot more work to do in the fight for equal rights.
Despite passage of the Civil Rights Act, not everyone is quick to change. Much like the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, massive resistance is in effect and country, particularly the South, isn’t going to let their way of life change because the President said so.
Though not explained in the film, in real life, President Johnson himself even admitted that the passage of the Civil Rights Act delivered the South to the Republican Party. His words were prophetic. My point is that I like how we’re thrown right into the middle of an ongoing battle instead of having everything explained to us. Granted, the movie does bring us up to speed through exchanges between King and Johnson, but it doesn’t feel the need to spell everything out.
The movie also doesn’t feel the need to make these figures seem larger than life. They’re humanized here and the film takes a lot of time giving us scenes with characters just interacting with one another, whether for business or leisure. The breakfast scene is a good example of that. Everyone understands why they’re in Selma, but they’re permitted to take a break, have a good time and even joke about their health.
In fact, for such a serious film, there’s quite a bit of humor here. For example, right before the first confrontation on the bridge, Reverend Williams asks John Lewis if he can swim. King and Abernathy joke about the possibility of their cell being bugged, both being well aware of the FBI constantly monitoring their activities.
This movie knows when to be serious, but also when to be light. But when the film ramps up the violence, it does so very well. A lot of the violence, I feel, is intensified because it’s very quick and sudden. There are some slow-motions for dramatic effect that I’m not a fan of, which I’ll get into in a bit, but for the most part, the violence we do see is very visceral and brutal.
And despite every inclination to either give up or resort to violence, everyone involved realizes that they need to stay united if they’re to win this battle and the minds of others. The film shows the importance of trusting one another in troubled times and staying committed to the mission of securing voting rights, no matter the cost. Rather than weaken their resolve, every murder just emboldens the protesters to fight on to make sure that the deaths of their friends and followers were not in vain.
While I enjoyed a lot of the dialogue, one thing I think this film benefits from by focusing on voting rights. King can’t just storm into the White House and demand that Johnson ensure voting rights for Negroes. He needs a game plan, but he also has to remember that the President has 101 issues to worry about, the least of which includes angering the South even more. The voting rights issue was a key test of federal and states’ rights.
Johnson, a Southerner himself, already lost the South by passing the Civil Rights Act. He’s got enough on his plate as it is. The last thing he needs is to incur their wrath even more by drawing his attention to voting rights. He understands how the South works. Yes, Negroes do technically have the right to vote, but they are shut out by any and all methods used to disenfranchise them.
In order to change Johnson’s mind, King and company need to properly frame their argument. The fact remains, it’s hard to get hard, southern Whites to care about or protect Negroes- at least, until they’re on the front page of the newspaper or on television every night. There’s no avoiding that. It’s a thorn in Johnson’s side because of King’s nonviolent stance because that makes him look more sympathetic, but it separates him from the more radical teachings of Malcolm X.
The relationship between Martin and Coretta is very strong. David Oyelowo does a great job channeling King’s charisma through his speech and mannerisms. He’s not trying to imitate King, but he embodies him. Even though this film didn’t have the rights to use King’s actual speeches, I never would thought different based on how powerful Oyelowo’s delivery comes across.
His interpretation of King is that of a man instead of a leader or saint. He admits at one point that he would rather everyone hate him instead of someone dying on his watch. King is tired, and you can both hear it in his voice and read on his face that he’s more than fed up with Johnson turning down his requests for help. And Oyelowo has such a commanding presence in every scene he’s in that I never got tired of watching him.
I’ll admit, it’s a bit jarring to see him play King, when he just sat beside him as a much younger character on The Butler.
Also impressive in her performance is Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King. She’s tired, too, but is still loving and supportive of her husband’s efforts. She’s also not just a stay at home wife, as she speaks with Malcolm X without his consent, so we know this Coretta is at least proactive. Their marriage can be combative and devolve into push-pull at times, but at the end of the day, they still have each other and their children. No amount of death threats will take that away from them.
Now, I didn’t realize this at first until doing some research on the film, but it didn’t hit me until then that this isn’t the first time Carmen Ejogo has played this character. In fact, I’m embarrassed this slipped my mind. Ejogo also played Coretta Scott King in the 2001 TV film, Boycott, which starred Jeffrey Wright as an equally humanized Martin Luther King, Jr. Side-note, if you haven’t seen Boycott, I would recommend it. Like Selma, it has the advantage of being a focused story- in that instance, the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
In that film, Martin and Coretta are very early in their journey. By the time we jump forward to the time of this film, they’re a lot more seasoned and know what they’re dealing with. I love this little connection. Yes, obviously Ejogo is playing a different version of Coretta than on Boycott, but I just think it’s so cool that she reprised her role. You don’t see that too often with actors playing the same character more than once.
Now if only we could have gotten Denzel Washington to reprise his role as Malcolm X, no matter how brief his appearance. A dream, I know.
The rest of the cast is just as excellent. Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth have great exchanges as Johnson and Wallace. Even though neither looks the part of the figures they are portraying, much like John Cusack as Richard Nixon in The Butler, I think they got most of their personality traits down. Wallace is a bit more fleshed out than Jim Clark, who just comes off as more cartoony.
Good performance, but if Clark were any more emblematic of what you’d expect from a sheriff who isn’t down with the Coloreds, he’d have released the hounds on the protesters. Stephan James does a good job embodying the young John Lewis and through his frustration, we get the sense that this is a man whose put himself on the front lines in Alabama many times, but is ready to do it as many times as necessary.
This leads into one of my issues with the films. Selma is good, but it’s not perfect. And while the movie does a good job with the material we’re given, there’s a point where it does more telling than showing. For example, we know there’s friction between SNCC and the SCLC, but only because we’re told that.
We’re told that SNCC has been trying to engage Negroes with voter registration and that they’ve been at this for a long time. I would like to have seen a scene or two of SNCC actually at work trying to talk with voters and their attempts to do grassroots organizing. That way, we’d get a sense of what they’ve been through and why King and company feel that it’s time to step in.
I understand certain figures being in this film to be recognized for their work, but some seem to be here just for show. Others don’t get much to do at all. For example, Diane Nash isn’t all that necessary here and feels more like the token female of the group that comes to Selma. For the record, she does at least express a desire to become more involved. Nash herself was very integral with the Freedom Rides, but in this film, she doesn’t have much to contribute.
The same goes for Tara Ochs as Viola Liuzzo. Liuzzo was very integral in the labor movement, yes, and if the film wanted to acknowledge her involvement with this march, that’s fine, but for the purposes of this movie, she’s just there for show. She easily could have been introduced without being named, and then identified at the ending montage.
As we know, Liuzzo was shot in the head and killed following the events of this film when she and her Negro passenger were pursued by members of the United Klans of America. My point is that if Liuzzo is going to be identified by name, at least do something with her instead of just showing her in the background. Very minor criticism, though.
Without giving too much away, the film’s ending felt too Hollywood, for my taste. It didn’t wrap everything up in a nice bow, but when it started blending the film’s march with actual footage, played along to a feel good song, it took me out of the experience. The same goes whenever we get dramatic slow motion during violent scenes instead of just allowing them to play out. No need to slow things down for dramatic effect.
Oh, and I also doubt Lyndon Johnson and George Wallace had long conversations about their legacies and how people would remember them. That’s a little too much foreshadowing, movie. And as much as I like Martin Sheen and Cuba Gooding Jr. in their roles, they aren’t here long enough for me to say much about them.
But these factors don’t take anything away from a very strong film with some great performances. Critics have called Selma timely, necessary, recommended viewing, and the like. I simply say it’s a great movie. Like Boycott before it, Selma humanizes the men and women on the frontlines of the Civil Rights Movement. It didn’t become too preachy- something this film easily could have done.
Director Ava DuVernay has painted a portrait of King as a real man with his own personal issues on top of being seen as the leader of this movement. It’s made with a lot of heart and respect for the real life story and shows how some brave folks of all types decided that enough was enough and never chose to back down. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to make sure my walls aren’t bugged, but they probably are.