The time was 1965. It was an ugly time in America. As the government spent billions fighting an unpopular war in Vietnam, black and poor people living in the South of the United States faced hurdles, obstacles, poll taxes, intimidation, and that was just to register to vote. This was a fact of life despite that the right to vote was something guaranteed in the Constitution of the United States in the 15th Amendment.
The film opens with a scene on October 14th, 1964. Martin Luther King Jr, played by David Oyelowo and his wife Coretta Scott King, played by Carmen Ejogo, are preparing for a formal awards presentation in Oslo, Norway. King was about to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
The second scene shows a group of four or five young black school girls descending a stairway. They are dressed in their Sunday church going clothes and are happily chatting. There’s a sudden explosion. This was the 16th Street Baptist Church, in Birmingham, Mississippi. This explosion would reverberate across the entire country then and those reverberations are still felt today..
In the film’s third scene, Annie Lee Cooper, played by Oprah Winfrey, walked into a building, a county seat, to attempt to Register to Vote. She was quiet and peaceful. But the registration clerk made it difficult for her. He said she was making a fuss, and she said she was just trying to register. She said I believe the form is right now. Clerk: It’s right when I say it is right.
So begins Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay. This film is a chronicle of Martin Luther King’s campaign to secure equal voting rights via epic marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.
The Civil Rights Act had already been enacted on July 2nd, 1964. This act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public.
Despite those strong words of the law, the Act was weak on enforcement. As an example, in Alabama, Governor George Wallace, played by Tim Roth, defiantly refused. He said, We have a way of doing things down here, and we like it the way it is.
King would meet with US President Lyndon Johnson, and insist that the President create and sign into law legislation to enforce voting rights. Johnson, played by Tom Wilkinson, was understanding, to a point, but asked King to be patient and to wait. Johnson said there were many important things that he had to deal with ahead of this.
King went back to his SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), and gave them the news. An idea of a March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama’s state capital was formulated. There was opposition from SNCC – the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee.
There you have both the background and the foundation of this film.
Martin Luther King Jr: It is unacceptable that they use their power to keep us voiceless –
What happens when a man stands up and says enough is enough. In this case courage and bravery and determination rise. The differences between the SCLC and SNCC were put aside. Solidarity was necessary. On March 9th, the first March began, as 500 people crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, waiting for them on the other side was Sheriff Jim Clark and his deputies. The Sheriffs had guns, night sticks, batons, clubs, tear-gas, gas masks, and mounted police on horseback.
The peaceful and unarmed demonstrators were quickly, and easily turned back. Many were beaten, arrested, and many suffered injuries. It was by any description a rout. And a mismatch. It was also covered by the media. The entire country was alarmed, shocked, and disgusted. As was President Johnson, who called in J.Edgar Hoover, played by Dylan Baker, for a conference.
Hoover offered to rid the President of King in a quick and final manner, or they could take a slower approach. Johnson didn’t come out and say he wanted King gone. Instead he asked Hoover to do what was necessary so the President would know what King was planning, and what he would do next.
Hoover tried intimidation of Kings family and a smear campaign. But King was not going to step back. A second March was started but aborted. Finally a third March happened on March 25th, 1965. The rest is history.
Of course the film is powerful, moving, and offers a haunting look at what was a dark period in the country’s history. The film seems to portray a celluloid canvas of the times, the people and the places. DuVernay came to the project well after David Oyelowo. In fact, the film had a number of false starts and I believe five directors were either signed or discussed before DuVernay was offered the opportunity.
However the making of the film came with a huge problem. The King family had sold the rights to MLK’s speeches, writings, and spoken eulogies to Dreamworks. They did so so they might control how Martin Luther King might be portrayed. DuVernay had an issue. There could be no I Have A Dream, or any other of King’s speeches in the film. So the speeches performed by actor David Oyelowo in the film do not contain the actual words spoken by King. This is because the King estate would not license the copyright in the speeches to filmmaker Ava DuVernay. Thus, the King estate’s aggressive stance on copyright has literally forced the re-writing of history.
With the film’s release other controversies have arisen from the commentaries about the film like –
There’s not enough whites in the film, and those that appear in the film are portrayed as evil and hateful people. Yes, Governor Wallace and Sheriff Clark were virulent and hateful people. But Johnson and Lee White were not tarnished by Wallace and Clark.
Lyndon Johnson was more of a supporter of the March to Montgomery than the film made him out to be. So says Joseph Califano, a Johnson aide. In fact, others have said that the March was Johnson’s idea, and have taken Selma and DuVernay to task for this ‘omission’.
A Jewish newspaper, The Daily Forward has stated that Jewish supporters of King and the Civil Rights movement were virtually ‘airbrushed’ out of the film.
As we all know, or should know – films are produced as entertainment, and to make money. And when you are dealing with events from 50 years ago, there will be both some historical inaccuracies and creative and artistic liberties taken. When James Cameron’s Titanic drove away with a truck full of Oscars, was there any outcry about the fictitious characters in that film? Or in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, or other historical films.
The fact is that if Dr. King and Mr. Johnson were with us today, it is entirely likely and probable that each would remember a slightly different version of what was said and by who in the Oval Office so long ago. Ditto for the conversations between Hoover and Johnson , and Wallace and Johnson.
I think we can take away, after viewing the film, a better understanding of history, even with inaccuracies. After all who owns history? While a person who lived through those tumultuous times may know more about what happened than say a younger person who wasn’t alive at the time, but then again – since the over whelming majority of people alive at the time were not in the Oval Office that day – their impressions of what happened are based on the impressions of other people who were similarly not in the room but have read about it.
In my view this is an important and powerful film. About the power, just think of the weight on King’s shoulders as he stood at the front of the March, facing the aggregate power of the state, and think of the fact, that on Mr. King”s watch – people had died. I think it is an excellent film, yet not a great film. While it does have great, and towering performances, and it does have moments of supreme tension and fear, like any historical film, the edge is dulled by our knowledge of where we are today, and such knowledge cannot be avoided. Granted, those born in the 40’s and 50’s will have a different amount of knowledge about those times than do today’s younger people who were born in the late 70s, the 80’s and the 90’s. But don’t let that stop you from seeing Selma.
But there are some pertinent and accurate facts that are worthy of mention and your consideration – when you see the people in the film portraying those who marched, please consider that DuVernay did not bring Hollywood extras with her. The people who you and I see in the film are actual current or present residents of Selma and the surrounding areas. Be they black folks or white folks, they had to take on the attitudes of both the marchers and those who were against the march. People living in this age of an Obama presidency had to voice and experience what is was like to either scream or say hateful things, or to take part in a recreation of the March which had extreme violence.
Second, Mr. Oyelowo, Tim Roth, Tom Wilkinson, and Carmen Ejogo are all British actors.
Third, and I think an excellent way to close out this review: DuVernay did not build a mock-up of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It was the very same bridge that those who marched had crossed. And in case you are wondering if the actual bridge is named the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Well it is. And who was this Pettus – he was born in 1821 and died in 1907. He was a brigadier general in the Confederate Army of Tennessee in 1863. After the Civil War ended, Mr. Pettus opened a law practice in Alabama and went on to become a US Senator in 1897. It is also true – that after the Civil War, Mr. Pettus was the leader in Alabama of the Klu Klux Klan.