Black History Month is a good time to revisit the work of Dr. Martin Luther King. And few films paint as visceral a historical image as Selma does.
It’s 1965. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 has been signed. Segregation is illegal. Blacks have the right to vote. Dr. King knows the President personally. You’d think things were looking up for the civil rights movement.
But not in Selma, Alabama. The rights black men and women have on paper don’t translate to real life. Government offices still routinely deny access to black men and women applying for voter registrations. As a result, state officials have no accountability to people of color, and the gross cycle of oppression continues. Dr. King sees the violence and oppression. But the President has other priorities, and wants him to wait. So it looks like he’s going to have to make it happen himself.
At the time of the film’s release, it was lauded primarily because of David Oyelowo’s performance as Dr. King. Certainly his performance is everything it needed to be, and the film is candid about King, showing his passion for civil rights without shying away from his failures as a husband (particularly his infidelity). But the film is ultimately bigger than King. All of its most impactful moments – the recreation of Bloody Sunday, a black woman being denied voter registration, and the murder of white preachers who supported civil rights – do not feature Oyelowo on screen.
That highlights a key part of the film’s focus. It’s not so much about King as it is painting a picture of the racism and hate of the 1960s. In that, the film succeeds marvelously. The violence of the civil rights era, particularly as compared to the non-violence that King supported and preached, is rattling. We’re used to seeing violence on film, but this time of violence, where those in po we beat the innocent without retaliation, that is troubling. It should be. And the film manages to accomplish this while staying within the bounds of its PG-13 rating, never resorting to mere shock value.
Where King is in the story, he is there in some way to further the appreciation for this historical violence. He doesn’t come away squeaky clean, as I’ve already alluded to, but the pain and death that surrounded him gives a lot of gravitas to the story, and shows the ethical and moral dilemmas that he was often faced with. Should he still march if people will be killed? Should he stop preaching due to threats to the lives of his children? How do you protest against and negotiate with the government at the same time?
The politics of the film are particularly intriguing. The centerpiece legislation that the film surrounds – the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – was partially invalidated by the Supreme Court in 2013. Selma was released in 2014. Reactions to this were almost exclusively a left-right split at the time. But if the film is reacting to the Supreme Court’s decision (and it’s hard to imagine that had no effect on it at all), it does so mostly without engaging in partisan politics. In fact, President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Democrat president who signed the landmark legislation, is treated with extreme cynicism, portrayed by Tom Wilkinson (in one of his career best performances, by the way) as one who cooperated with King only insomuch as it was politically convenient, but really would like for King and his movement to go away, if possible. This, along with the extreme racism of Alabama Governor George Wallace, paints a picture not of black Americans against a particular political party, but of black Americans against politicians in general. In so doing, the film crafts a message that while political, is humanitarian and not partisan.
There are few criticisms that can be admitted against this film. If anything, I might say that King’s infidelity is dealt with too easily, although to deal with it at great length would have detracted from the true story of Selma. There are also a lot of minor characters to try and keep up with, although that never is too distracting from the story.
In short, the film is startlingly honest. The violence of the 1960s, the deep-seeded hatred of racist whites, the two-faced president, and even the infidelity of the complicated Dr. King is all laid bare. Selma is deeply moving, eye-opening, and a great pick for Black History Month.