This is a is another important film which should be required viewing for all Americans - along with Lee Daniel’s The Butler and Seven Years a Slave - as a reminder of our national history of racism and a cautionary tale. Although Lyndon Johnson had passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 blacks were still facing rampant discrimination in the Jim Crowe south in all areas of their lives. Martin Luther King reasoned that the only way to change entrenched practices and policies was for the black population to have a voice in politics. To that end he set voting rights as his next goal.
Unlike The Butler and Seven Years a Slave, which are epic in scale, this film telescopes in on the year 1965 and focuses on the political and tactical maneuvering between factions in the civil rights movements, as well as within LBJ’s administration and congress. We get up close to the intense negotiations between JFK and MLK and they are both revealed as skilled strategists with their eyes on the prize. They both want the same thing but have entirely different vested interests.A still from Selma. (Image from official site)
The staging of the marchers being beaten by police as they cross the Edward Pettus Bridge are gut wrenching and terrible. The tenor of the times is enhanced by newsreel footage and the pacing augments the feeling of urgency. David Oyelowo reveals King’s humanity in all of its complexities - impassioned, driven, shrewd, intelligent, and often nagged by doubt and guilt over the toll his activities are having on his wife, Coretta (the beautiful Carmen Ejogo). Tom Wilkinson is extraordinary as LBJ, conflicted about his ability to do what he knows is right and still maintain his political power. There is a wonderful scene (maybe apocryphal) when he is in the Oval Office with the intractable Governor of Alabama, George Wallace (played to sinister perfection by Tim Roth) when he realizes if he does not act decisively history might not remember him on the right side of the civil rights movement. This is a painful and intense look at a seismic period in our conflicted relationship with racism.A still from Selma. (Image from official site)
The great irony is that while this is an amazingly accurate period piece about 1965, it feels tragically timely for 2014 in the context of recently renewed efforts to repress voter registration of minorities in many states. And particularly, the high profile killings of unarmed black men by white police which have gone unpunished feels shockingly callous and racist in 2014. The understandable reaction of the black community which has resulted in demonstrations and marches in cities throughout the US and solidarity marches in other cities outside the US profoundly illustrates how long it takes to undo attitudes and prejudices even in “civil society”A still from Selma. (Image from official site)