“Selma” is an emotional experience. Whether or not you lived through the turbulent 1960s, you know that the social upheaval changed the very fabric of American society. Of course, there are many, in light of recent events, who feel we still haven’t come far enough. But a trip back to the Selma, Alabama, of 1965 would convince you that we sure don’t want to go there.
Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo, a Brit born of Nigerian parents) came to Selma because he believed this was a perfect place to target a peaceful demonstration: principally, because people’s basic civil rights were being denied. The good-ol’-boy system of all-white county clerks in local courthouses made certain that blacks were intimidated, harassed, delayed and otherwise prevented from simply registering to vote. King was preaching social non-violence, but he disagreed with some of the more radical activists of the time, like Malcolm X, who were more confrontational, even inviting conflict. King felt that the moral high ground was to claim the constitutional right to peacefully assemble, to publicly protest and to exert political pressure for needed change. Of course, he was not the first to demand reform, but somehow, with his regal bearing and dignified manner, principled demeanor and educated but fiery rhetoric, he was able to galvanize people and to rally support to his cause, not just fellow blacks, but also whites who felt the call to join the fight for the principle of civil equality.
Of course Alabama had a long and proud tradition of waving the Confederate flag, which to the blacks was the very symbol of white racism. The lawmen who opposed the marches were, of course, all white. And so were the judges who withheld their approval for parade permits, not to mention the man in the White House, Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, also an Englishman), who’s depicted here (to much controversy from historians) as being only a reluctant and late participant in the civil rights bandwagon. Of course the most visible and vocal white supremacist was Alabama’s governor, George Wallace (played by Tim Roth, also British), who didn’t realize that his era was past; he was so stubbornly racist that not even his four subsequent unsuccessful runs for the presidency would convince him that he was the one out of touch with the people.
“Selma” is unafraid to show King with a little bit of personal vulnerability. His wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo, another Brit), confronted him about his infidelity, but quietly so as not to wake the children. King could deliver soaring sermons, but sometimes, in the quiet of his own living room, he entertained self-doubt. And he was getting weary, not only from all the high-stakes stare-downs, but also the implication of dissension within the ranks of the activists themselves. But he could inspire people, and he could lead, and he knew how to make the group see that they had to keep occupying the moral high ground or else they had no chance of succeeding. Of course the truest test for any self-proclaimed pacifist is if he defends himself when physically attacked. It takes a special kind of courage to take a beating for the principle of pacifism.
Despite the curious bias about casting non-Americans in the critical roles, director Ava DuVernay creates a credible time capsule of the Deep South back when it was painfully segregated. The real kudos, of course, belong to the late, great Martin Luther King himself, who was the singular voice of a repressed people and so was a true prophet of the generation.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.