Ava DuVernay’s Selma depicts just one of the many campaigns for the Voting Rights Act during the larger civil rights movement of the 1960s. Selma is an extraordinary accomplishment not only for film, but also for cementing its place in our greater American story.
The film humanizes Martin Luther King Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) in ways that popular remembrance of his life does not. We always remember MLK as “having a dream”–an image of a man who never tired, his oratory a display of his indispensable strength. The film, in comparison, constantly reminds us how much the civil rights struggle weighed on him. He constantly had to balance standing firm on his values and goals with the guilt he felt when people were injured as a result of his leadership. The film also showed us how he balanced his home life and his activism. While his wife, Coretta Scott King (played by Carmen Ejogo) was his number one confidante, she was still very aware of Dr. King’s infidelity. Overall, Selma‘s take on Dr. King is that he is not necessarily an optimistic, invincible saint. He is human.
Even though Dr. King is the film’s main focus, Selma is not solely a Martin Luther King Jr. story. Selma does a wonderful job of introducing us to some of the many players involved in the politics of the movement. I was highly impressed by this aspect of the film as it is typical for popular American recollection of the civil rights movement to leave us with only a short list of historical characters. For example, the involvement of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, in Selma, expresses to the viewer that Dr. King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were not the only players involved in the planning of marches and sit-ins. The storyline between SNCC and the SCLC acknowledges that there was a political struggle within the movement: which message and which agenda would best serve the cause? The interactions between SNCC players such as James Forman (played by Trai Byers) and John Lewis (played by Stephan James) provided a voice I was excited to see.
Truly, this film’s greatest triumph is the inclusion of oft-forgotten black leaders. Typically, movies like this do not get made unless its main characters are white. Every character in Selma is important to the struggle. To get a better understanding of all of these leaders, check out this post which describes their involvement in the movement. Finally, I wanted to touch on the critics of Selma. There has been much controversy about the depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson in the film. Many critics believe that President Johnson is made out to be a villain. I even put out a tweet urging people to read up on the working relationship of Dr. King and President Johnson because I know very well how typical it is for movies to distort the truth (see: 2012’s Lincoln). After watching the movie, I wholeheartedly have to disagree with these critics. While Johnson may not have made it the easiest on King, LBJ is not a villain. Really, no political allies will agree on every single issue and LBJ and MLK were no different. No one should let this “controversy” deter them from watching Selma. This is a film everyone should watch–it’s a history and a legacy that will always affect not only Americans, but the entire world.
Selma is in theaters now.