It started with the brazen murder of a Black man by police in broad daylight. While this could describe a number of recent cases, the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson in Selma, Alabama, on February 26, 1965, precipitated the climactic confrontation of the Civil Rights Movement, one that eventually ended a century of Black disenfranchisement in the South.
The events brought to life in Ava DuVernay’s stunning film, “Selma,” are essential to understanding our history, and the systemic racism that seems stuck on repeat, in what could be cut-and-paste headlines. “Selma” is an important, moving film that sets a new standard for dramas about Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.
David Oyelowo’s Oscar-worthy performance does an exceptional job in a daunting assignment, capturing the soul of King. He does well enough with the sound and rhythms of King’s speech, especially in moments of conversation. He does less well in the great speeches, but who could fault any actor for failing to fully match one of the last century’s greatest orators?
The principal flaw in Oyelowo’s rendition of King’s speeches, however, is that they are not actually King’s speeches. The most frustrating aspect of the film is the fact that the filmmakers didn’t have the rights from the King Estate to use any of King’s oratorical language. So in a film of commendable and impressive historical accuracy, the centerpiece of King’s career – his oratory – is the one false note. It’s not surprising that a speech written by a film director “in the style of” Martin Luther King does not rise to the magic and transcendence of an actual speech by one of the greatest speakers ever. But it is disappointing that the next generation of schoolchildren will not encounter King’s actual words when they view this film.
King’s speech at the conclusion of the Selma-to-Montgomery March is one of his great ones, with its refrains of “We’re on the move now,” and “How long? Not long!”, its climax quoting “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and his powerful conclusion with a quartet of “Glo-ry Halleluiahs.” We don’t hear it in this film.
But this is one fault in an otherwise fabulous film. Oyelowo’s sensitive portrait of King delivers on the essential aspect of the great historical dramas like Ray, Ali, X, or Lincoln – the sense that one is seeing the small, private behind-the-scenes moments of those who made great public history. “Selma” captures the nuances and complexities of the Civil Rights Movement as few dramas have: the personal life of King and his family; the jocularity and camaraderie among members of SCLC; the tensions with SNCC; the ordinary bits between the battles.
The director resists the understandable temptation to avoid the flaws that mark King as human. Simply showing King smoking, for example, is an important, real touch. More significant is the nuanced way DuVernay imagines the conversation between Martin and Coretta about his infidelity. Both the tender and strained moments between the parties to this complex marriage are subtly portrayed.
The supporting cast is superb. Stephan James is convincing as John Lewis, down to the shape of his mouth when he speaks. Common is a fine actor and the spitting image of King aide James Bevel. Tessa Thompson as Freedom Ride heroine Diane Nash, Ruben Santiago-Hudson as Bayard Rustin, and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta King are all well cast and well played.
The great history is also well done, from Oprah’s early scene as Annie Lee Cooper, confronting the absurd obstructions placed on her by the County registrar as she tries to register, through the wrenching depiction of Bloody Sunday and the complexity and mystery of Turnaround Tuesday, when King hesitated to continue the march to Montgomery in the face of both potential mob violence and a federal court injunction.
The painful irony of “Selma” is that the story of the heroic struggle that produced the Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally comes to the screen just as the United States Supreme Court is turning its back on key provisions of that law. It was less than two years ago that the Supreme Court, in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, held unconstitutional a key provision of the Voting Rights Act – the requirement that those jurisdictions that had practiced the most virulent forms of racist voting exclusion would have to have any subsequent voting law changes “pre-cleared” in Washington before taking effect.
Now many states and localities are once again making it harder to vote by cutting back on early voting, restricting students’ ability to vote and imposing voter ID requirements that are disproportionately burdensome on those who neither drive their own cars nor have passports. In the 48 years between the Voting Rights Act and the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County decision, such restrictive laws from the Old South would never have taken effect. Who would have imagined, after two centuries of expanding democracy, that the act of voting would once again deliberately be made more difficult?
Drew Dellinger, PhD, is the author of Love Letter to the Milky Way and the forthcoming book, “The Mountaintop Vision: Martin Luther King’s Cosmology of Connection.” (www.drewdellinger.org; Twitter: @drewdellinger)