Ava DuVernay’s Selma focuses on a small chapter of Dr. Martin Luther King’s fight for civil rights. He and a group of activists go Selma, a small town in Alabama, after a church is bombed there, killing four little girls. In Selma, they hope to secure equal voting rights for African Americans by raising awareness through a massive march from Selma to Alabama’s capital, Montgomery. However, they face violent opposition against the white locals, including the mayor and police.
Some may be confused about the focus on voting rights, since African Americans technically had the right to vote after the civil war. The problem King and his activists were pushing to solve is the fact that so many African Americans were often unable to register to vote, many times through discrimination and intimidation by the local authorities. We understand this better in a key scene near the beginning of the film where Anne Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) applies to register and the man running the office gives her an unnecessary quiz. Cooper fares well, reciting the entire preamble, until he asks her to name every county judge in Alabama, then denies her application, like he has so many times before. It is disheartening to see, but far from the greatest injustice shown in this film.
As the film progresses, we watch Dr. King (David Oyelowo) and his team plan their moves and we see how Selma’s authorities bring them down. Over and over, King rallies his troops, prepares them for a protest, and things don’t go right. Sometimes the activists emerge with only a few beaten. Other times, there are casualties.
The turning point comes when the protesters first try to march to Montgomery, without King in attendance, and are violently attacked by police. Some are on horseback, some use tear gas, batons, whips, even bats wrapped with barbed wire. And cameras capture it all, broadcasting the disturbing images all over the nation. The incident became known as Bloody Sunday. It gains King and his crew sympathy and helps bring the whole nation together for their cause.
The moments of violence in this film may be hard to watch for some viewers. It is heartbreaking to watch these peaceful protests become absolute hell. The protesters, of all ages, run and scream fearing for their lives and the authorities don’t let up. It’s barbaric and inhumane and may strike a deep chord. All around me in the theater were gasps, sobs and people covering their faces unable to watch any more.
I’m sorry to say that I did not feel that Selma was as poignant and moving as DuVernay hoped it would be. I do believe Selma tells an important story and should be seen by the masses. Its Best Picture nomination will ensure its place in film history. However, after last year’s big winner, 12 Years a Slave, it is hard to make a racially charged drama that can really compete. Unlike 12 Years a Slave, I did not find Selma to be visually striking, emotionally overwhelming or full of spellbinding performances. Sadly, I rarely found Oyelowo’s performance to be worthy of such an important American. However, he does light up during the speech scenes, especially during poor Jimmy’s funeral.
What I did leave the theater with, is an idea on how history will remember us for our actions now. Toward the end of the film, we see the march finally go on. It plays like old footage of the historical event. It is a joyous moment and we celebrate it with all who are marching. Yet, we on the sidelines we still see those angry white people, flipping off the cameras and waving Confederate flags. What a horrible way to be remembered in history, as the guy trying to rain on the parade. As events unfold around us in our lives, I hope each of us can keep the future in perspective and not wind up being the one trying to spread hate in the background. Our grandchildren would be so ashamed.
“It is unacceptable that they use their power to keep us voiceless.”