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Film Review: The Present-Day Consciousness of ‘Selma’

Screen shot from a trailer for “Selma”

A present-day social consciousness flows throughout this chronicle of the period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a nonviolent campaign in Selma, Alabama, to secure the right to vote for blacks. And, although King may be the focus, the story does not deify King but shows that the small acts of hundreds of people standing strong against the powerful can force change.

Selma opens with King (David Oyelowo) accepting a Nobel Peace Prize and declaring that “22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice.” To what extent this may hamper the civil rights movement now is a source of anxiety. Then, Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) appears, ranting about how King is in his way and needs to get out of his way. However, Johnson concedes he is a “statesman” and much more preferable to a black militant leader like Malcolm X.

King informs Johnson that the movement demands federal legislation for the right to vote that will come with robust enforcement. But Johnson does not want King to get ahead of himself now. He has plans for a War on Poverty that will have more broad appeal to all Americans and will not alienate the white power structure. He wants King’s help and insists that blacks will have to wait for legislation protecting the right to vote. But what King might call the “fierce urgency of now” is brought to life as the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham explodes with the bodies of four little girls being thrown around and buried by the rubble.

A scene featuring a cameo from Oprah Winfrey, one of the producers of the film, starkly portrays how whites made it impossible for blacks to vote by stumping them with trivial questions about the Constitution, American history and even the names of local politicians.

There is an episodic quality to the film. The audience is treated to various depictions of what life was like for King and his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), how the proud racist Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) viewed the outside agitators in his state, what the energy was like when King delivered speeches to a church and how authorities used the FBI and local police forces to suppress the movement.

The script incorporates a wide array of characters to illustrate the political spectrum. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) has been in Selma for two years prior to King’s arrival. Student organizers are initially concerned that King will stymie their efforts. Malcolm X makes King and his entourage anxious. Johnson would like the movement to leave Selma and stop causing problems by being so demanding of government. Wallace and local Sheriff Jim Clark think if authorities allow them to win voting then next they will demand jobs and then welfare so they do not have to work. They are to be crushed. And then, there are the whites in Alabama, who engage in murderous acts to terrorize everyone in the movement into ending their struggle against segregation.

Coretta could be a peripheral character yet she in many ways has as much of a commanding screen presence as King and that is a result of the superb performance by Ejogo.

Some of the scenes are heavily stylized as actions, like for instance, the bridge scene when tear gas fills the air and chaos is slowed down to accentuate the sheer brutality of the police.

Cinematographer Bradford Young frequently frames the face of King (and sometimes others) in shadow for dramatic effect. Half of his face is lit while the other is completely dark. He also employs the use of silhouettes to amplify some of the scenes where people are fleeing police. (*Additionally, in one particularly agonizing scene of police terror, the audience never sees the face of any of the men in blue attacking demonstrators, which heightens the fear of the moment for viewers.)

One thread that runs throughout the entire film is the FBI’s spying on King and others in the civil rights movement. Agents terrorize his family, leaving messages on his answering machine. They seek to “dismantle the family,” as J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) offers to do for President Johnson in one scene.

The filmmakers make the creative choice of having text from logs written by FBI agents appear on screen. They are not necessarily used for exposition but provide a glimpse of how agents presented King’s efforts to bolster their campaign to discredit and intimidate him. For example, a speech to a church with hundreds of people present would be logged as King inciting people.

Parallels between Selma and Ferguson are inescapable. The police violence against those who dare to march, especially the clouds of tear gas, reminds one of the force the police used against people after Michael Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson. Wallace’s disgust at “outside agitators” coming to Alabama is similar to the disgust Missouri officials displayed toward people from all over the US, who traveled to stand in solidarity with the people of Ferguson. There are leaders in the movement who want Johnson to send in troops to protect the march from Selma to Montgomery just as there were people in Ferguson, who wanted Obama to deploy the National Guard to protect them. The white spectators, who cheer police brutality against the movement, are similar to the whites in Missouri, who praised the police for cracking down on “thugs” they think are only in the streets to riot and stir anarchy.

Blacks demand federal legislation to protect voting rights because they recognize that without the right to vote there will continue to be all-white juries. If that is the case, black lives murdered by white people or even police will have no justice.

About fifty years later, blacks are struggling more than ever against the institutional racism in America’s justice system and seriously reforming or doing away with the grand jury process entirely is the goal of a movement which cries out, “Black Lives Matter.”

Much of the praise the film has garnered is owed as a result of the remarkable job done by director Ava DuVernay. She is an African-American woman. It is exceedingly rare to see women, let alone women of color, directing films as prestigious as Selma.

DuVernay directed This is the Life (2008), a documentary examining a collective of street poets in Los Angeles in 1989 which rejected gangster rap. She directed I Will Follow (2010), which tells the deeply personal story of a grieving black woman and Middle of Nowhere (2012), which centers on a black woman who drops out of medical school after her husband is incarcerated for eight years.

For well over a decade, DuVernay has worked as a publicity consultant on much more commercial films and likely used the money from that work to make films telling the stories she wanted to tell. She has, up until now, not received the recognition she deserves but perhaps that will change. She brings a fresh perspective to the story of Selma and transforms it into a celebration of those who have tirelessly fought for equality and justice in America and a nod to those who continue to struggle for equality and justice today.


I recommend this post, “Ten Things You Should Know About ‘Selma’ Before You See the Film,” from the Zinn Education Project for additional reading.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."