Two years ago, I wrote this review of Ava Duvernary's brilliant film, Selma for the website, Across the Margin. I've decided to share the piece here, in honor of Ms. Duvernay's recent Oscar nomination and Black History Month 2017.
In Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed film, Selma, we are offered a bird’s eye view of the Civil Rights Movement. At the film’s outset, we are introduced to an accomplished Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Golden Globe nominee, David Oyelowo), who is receiving his Nobel Peace Prize. Ever humble, Dr. King is struggling with the accolades he has just been given. Just as quickly as we come to appreciate this great man’s humility and the loving relationship between him and his wife, Coretta (expertly portrayed by Carmen Ejogo), we are brutally reminded of the time period in America and the relevance of his work in the Movement. Selma gravely reminds us of the sacrifices so many made. Of the cost, in lives, of promoting equality for all races in 1960s America.
Carmen Ejogo’s portrayal of Coretta Scott King shows us a woman dealing with immense sacrifice, juggling her support of her husband’s role in the movement and her desire to be closer to him. We are reminded just how young King and the other key figures were during the Movement. King was assassinated just shy of his 40th birthday and his youth did not hamper the meticulous planning that went into tackling the issue of voting rights. And we are also reminded that it was not solely black folks who took part in these protests.
Viewers of Selma might not be surprised to learn that this is a film about conflict. But, the conflict is about much more than those who were challenging the Southern whites protecting the status quo of Alabama’s antiquated and racist voting restrictions. There was also conflict between the Old Guard of the Movement and the students who comprised the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an internal conflict within the SNCC, and the highly-charged, political conflict between Dr. King and President Lyndon B. Johnson (played effectively by Tom Wilkinson).
Recently, there has been discussion about the historical accuracy of Selma, specifically LBJ’s involvement in the happenings in this historical town. DuVernay has addressed these issues, expressing her unhappiness with seeing “blacks sidelined in their own stories (Lincoln, for example)”, and she aspires in Selma to “show blacks having agency in their own lives.” An article in Vulture drove home the fact that these detractors are missing the point, stating, “for this to be I think reduced – reduced is really what all this is – to one talking point of a small contingent of people who don’t like one thing, I think is unfortunate, because this film is a celebration of people, a celebration of people who gathered to lift their voices, black, white, otherwise, all classes, nationalities, faiths, to do something amazing.”
So why see Selma? There are at least five solid reasons to go see this this poignant film. First off, it is history. Painful, yet important history. Secondly, its timing is fortuitous. With our country’s ongoing discussion of police mistreatment of African-Americans and the protests that have ensued, Selma is incredibly relevant. Thirdly, it portrays another American icon in John Lewis (played brilliantly by Stephen James), who far too many Americans are unaware of his pivotal involvement in Dr. King’s plight1. Fourthly, Selma is a must-see because this is the work of two prestigious talents. One in Ava DuVernay, who became the first African-American woman to be nominated for a directorial Golden Globe, and could conceivably become the first African-American woman to be nominated for a directorial Academy Award2. The other, David Oyelowo, whose star-making, nuanced performance was the heart and soul of the film. Finally, Selma excels because despite the struggles it portrays, it is a story of hope. There were of course unfortunate and unnecessary casualties. Just awful. But, the resolve and bravery portrayed is inspirational. Make time to see Selma, the most important film of the year, and witness history.
Took my daughter to meet Civil Rights icon Congressman John Lewis last year.