Watching ‘Selma’ Like Stepping Back In History


Watching the new movie Selma is like taking a trip 50 years into the past to watch one of the pivotal events of our history. Fresh from winning the Nobel Peace Prize, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. focused the civil rights movement on the need to force southern states to allow blacks to vote. Those of us past a certain age even remember a time when there were separate bathrooms for people of different races, even separate water fountains. Segregation was the law of the land.

But things changed. And spearheading the change was a generation of young people, ready to accept punishment for demanding equal rights. Martin Luther King Jr. was not well-known until he led a major boycott in the late 1950s in Birmingham, Ala. He was arrested, but his letter from his cell is now considered and taught as literature.

Although many other people played important roles, he gradually became the moral center of the fight for equality. And in 1964, Congress passed a Civil Right Act that officially made most forms of racial discrimination illegal. It was an immense win, but without the political power brought on by voting, entrenched forces would not allow the law to be carried out.

King (David Oyelowo) came to Selma, Ala., one of the most ferocious centers of segregation, to lead the battle, and the film centers on the events there. A black woman, Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), asks to register but is forced to take a ridiculous test (it required her to know the names of more than 60 county judges) that whites were not required to take. In the film, King asks President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) for support and does not get it, but goes on to lead the march anyway. Marchers join from all over the region and march from Selma to the Montgomery County courthouse across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) sets police dogs on them and has thugs beat them; some are even murdered. However, things have changed. Television shows the violence, and the forces behind King rally and eventually, despite the hatred of white southerners and lack of support from the federal government, King triumphs.

It has been noted, however, that there are many historical flaws in the narrative. A bombing shown as happening right after King’s Nobel Prize ceremony had happened a year previously. Even more to the point, director Ava DuVernay has turned the movie into a straight black vs. white morality drama, ignoring a lot of history. Johnson is shown as anti-civil rights when he was probably the greatest civil rights president in our history. He supported King on this, although the movie shows opposition, and it was his political expertise that got the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed. While it was true that J. Edgar Hoover wiretapped King, that had begun under President John F. Kennedy. Many surviving leaders of that time have condemned the portrayal of Johnson.

The acting was excellent. Oyelowo is a superb King, and Carmen Ejogo is effective as Coretta Scott King. Casting Wilkinson and Roth was an error; the two Englishmen never quite get the southern accents right. Oyelowo and Ejogo, also Brits, were close to perfect. There are a lot of strong supporting players. I particularly liked Stephan James as leader (and now Congressman) John Lewis, a gentleman I met many years ago.

This is a powerful, if somewhat inaccurate, semi-documentary. It feels wonderfully right. Those of us who delight in the freedoms we have in America can suffer along with the children and others brutalized on that bridge 50 years ago — and, even better, know that the suffering helped catalyze change. Once blacks were able to vote, political leaders either had to work with them or face far tougher electoral challenges.

And above all of this was Martin Luther King. He was a man of the people. Unlike many of today’s organizers, he not only marched with his protesters, he was in front. He knew he might well die early, but as one of the recent terrorist victims in Paris put it, “Better to die on your feet than live on your knees.” King’s greatness changed America. It did not end racism. It did not solve all problems. But the majority of people want to get along, want to live in peace. And that is his legacy.

This is a very strong movie, even if it’s historically flawed. See it, but it might be a good idea to read the history as well.