Marching Across Time

‘Selma’ connects past and present at pivotal civil rights flashpoint

SELMA

David Oyelowo (second from left) stars as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in ‘Selma’

Selma

Starring David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo & Tom Wilkinson

Directed by Ava DuVernay

PG-13

It depicts events that happened half a century ago, but the drumbeat—and the heartbeat—of the present pounds loud and clear in Selma.

Set in the weeks leading up to March 1965, it’s a moving, powerful portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King and his passionate work to turn back the toxic tide of segregation and discrimination against African-Americans, especially in the South.

British actor David Oyelowo does a phenomenal job as King, conveying the combustive cocktail of faith, focus, outrage, diplomacy and drive that fueled his mission leading up to the “peaceful protest” marches from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., to bring national attention to voting rights. His King is no martyred saint, but a charismatic, pragmatic leader who can take sit-down meetings with the President in the White House, as well as a husband, father and family man trying to keep his own “house” from crumbling from pressures inside and out.

SELMA

Carmen Ejogo plays King’s wife, Coretta.

A scene in which King’s wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo, also terrific), confronts him over his well-known infidelities is a masterfully staged, perfectly written and expertly performed moment in which the silence becomes as important as—and even more weighty than—the words.

SELMA

Oprah Winfrey plays a civil rights activist.

The protests at the heart of the movie may have been “nonviolent,” but the event that came to be known as Bloody Sunday, March 7, was an episode of horrific, horrendous brutality, as hundreds of marchers were attacked by state and local police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge with tear gas, clubs wrapped in barbed wire, and horsewhips. Director Ava DuVernay, a former Hollywood publicist who worked her way up through the studio system via music documentaries and indie films, depicts the one-sided confrontation as a melee of swirling smoke, raining blows, sickening thuds and crumbling bodies.

King is the movie’s central figure, but note that it doesn’t bear his name. It’s about more than the man; it’s about the movement he inspired. And specifically, it’s about how the crucial flashpoint of that movement came at one moment in time, in one specific place, and that place was Selma.

And, appropriately, there’s a big supporting cast that helps get it there, including Tom Wilkinson as Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson; Tim Roth as Alabama Gov. George Wallace; Oprah Winfrey as activist Annie Lee Cooper; Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover; Ledici Young as gospel singer Mahalia Jackson; and numerous other actors, including Martin Sheen, rapper Common, Stephen Root, Niecy Nash, Cuba Gooding Jr., Giovanni Ribisi, Andrè Holland, Stephan James and Wendell Pierce, portraying other real-life players in the drama.

SELMA

King meets in the White House with Pres. Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson).

The filmmakers didn’t have access to King’s archive of speeches, so his orations are paraphrased—to magnificent effect. And there have been questions and quibbles about the movie’s authenticity and precise historical accuracy, especially about its portrayal of King’s relationship with L.B.J. But leave the parsing of small details to small minds. As the 50th anniversary of the events depicted in Selma approaches, this big-issue movie—with policemen beating and killing unarmed black men, streets filled with peaceful protesters, and repressive voting laws that disenfranchise minorities—feels chillingly contemporary, all too real, and monumental in more ways than one. Selma profoundly reminds us that while the marching may lead to the mountaintop, we still, sadly, haven’t fully made it there yet.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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3 thoughts on “Marching Across Time

  1. Joey says:

    I’m not quite sure why so many critics are praising this movie solely for being “relevant.” I severely dislike how you compared Selma to what is currently happening today. What happened in Ferguson and New York have nothing to do with race; it was police brutality that the media turned into a race issue. Do you realize that there are many unarmed white, hispanic, and native people who are also murdered by officers? And do you realize that there were many protests that were not peaceful in Ferguson. People’s businesses were looted and burned by protesters and you do not bring it up once, even though Selma could be argued as a call for peaceful protesting over looting and violence.

  2. Randy James says:

    I’ve read most of the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and most sum-up (more or less) with the same plaintive refrain:

    “More relevant today than ever…”

    As a Republican voter since 1971, I tend to agree, but not for the same reasons as most who are peddling that message. Racism and bigotry are more virulent today than ever in my lifetime. And it’s coming almost exclusively from Democrats, the President, liberals and professional Leftists. Anytime I post a comment on-line critical of President Obama, I can expect to see at least a half-dozen posts calling me a racist or a moron. I see African American members of Congress ridiculed and denigrated because they are either members of the Republican party, or just generally considered ‘conservative’.

    In 2012, it was considered ‘politically correct’ (if not ‘advantageous’) to make disparaging references to the Mormon faith, because Mitt Romney was guilty of being both a Republican, and member of a religion which for no known reason, has been deemed eligible for disdain by the liberal ‘community’. There was even a satirical hit on Broadway built on the premise that there was a lot to mock in the Book of Mormon.

    And this last year (the year that is supposedly so timely with respect to the film ‘Selma’), we had violent race-riots in the streets of several of our cities, expressing outrage that two African Americans, one of whom had just committed a felony caught on a security video, ended up dead when in each case, they resisted arrest by police. Even after two grand-juries, and the DOJ determined that racism played no part in these incidents, the outrage continued. In Ferguson, Missouri, the media, and racists in the roving bands of so-called protesters whipped up a lynch-mob mentality, all based on what turned out to be false allegations against a white police officer, who, when the facts finally came out, had been assaulted and almost killed when the suspect he was trying to detain, attempted to disarm him, and use his gun against the officer.

    Niether was there a shred of evidence of racism in New York City, where another African American died after resisting arrest. In fact, the officer-in-charge in that incident was an African American woman. But when the New York City mob took to the streets, African Americans were seen on national TV carrying placards and chanting: “What do we want? Dead Cops”.

    And in just a few short days after that “civil-rights rally”, they got their wish: two NYPD cops shot from behind while eating lunch in their squad car, by an African American who bragged about his intention to “kill two of them for every one of ours” on his Facebook page.

    So I guess it’s true. The movie Selma is relevant today, because once again, we have millions of Americans who blindly hate a certain minority of their fellow citizens, partly due to the color of their skin, and their own self-serving assertion that this particular minority (white Republicans and/or conservative African Americans for the most part) don’t qualify for the same respect and civil-liberties as they (you) do.

    I don’t need to go see the movie Selma — I watched it all first-hand back then while it was taking place. I recognized racist hatred when I saw it back then, and I recognize it again now. There was no excuse for it then, and there’s no excuse for it now. But there is one added insult to the racism and bigotry practiced by liberals and the Left today: unforgivable hypocrisy.

    BTW: This Republican voted for Senator Obama in 2008, because I took him at his word that he would try to do the things he said he would do as a candidate, if we elected him to this country’s highest office. We did. He didn’t.

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