In 1964, civil rights activists came together in Selma, Alabama, for nonviolent demonstrations against the way that African Americans were treated when they attempted to exercise their right to register to vote in many southern counties. When violence broke out, Martin Luther King Jr. and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, including current Congressman John Lewis, to plan the historic protest march from Selma to Montgomery.
The movie Selma gives viewers a sense of what went on behind the scenes. Leaders needed to plan strategically, getting the most exposure for their cause, with an eye to winning the sympathies of a larger audience and making it more difficult for President Johnson to put them off.
They needed to train their supporters how to stay silent even when they were physically challenged. Strong and dedicated leaders of different groups, with sometimes differing ideas of how things should be done, had to agree on a plan of action, putting egos aside.
And they had to make calculations about how much danger to put their people in.
Meanwhile, in Washington, President Lyndon B. Johnson had recently passed the Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination based on race. The push for desegregation was underway. As portrayed in Selma, he was ready to move on to other pressing matters, but civil rights leaders, notably Dr. King, were pushing him to make voting rights a reality, pointing out that until voting was truly available to everyone, the electoral and judicial systems would always be unfair. On the other side, Alabama Governor George Wallace was frustrating progress, fighting to maintain the status quo.
Selma both honors and humanizes American heroes, shining a light on the kind of decisions, fears, and foes that they faced in their journey. The fight for equal rights took leaders from their families, put lives in danger, and placed a heavy burden on those who decided the next move. Actor David Oyelowo radiates King’s charisma and courage, demonstrates his reliance on his wife, his supporters, and the Lord, and exposes some of his human failings as well. In the humanizing of its heroes, Selma makes clear that standing against hatred is not to be left to the superhuman. Ordinary people must be open to the call to justice.
Director Ava DuVurnay keeps the story intimate and intense without rushing the scenes. The powerful soundtrack adds emotional depth without manipulative sentimentality.
As is common with many historical films, Selma has left some arguing about the historical accuracy of its portrayals of different people. In spite of possible discrepancies, the film gives insight into how difficult the road to justice was. It will leave viewers wondering how they can stand for justice today. (Paramount)