‘Selma’ is the first major feature film made about King. It focuses on his campaign in Selma, Alabama in 1965, where the restrictions and obstacles enforced on black people meant that, despite having a constitutional right to vote, hardly any were registered.
The film is a powerful portrayal of the man at centre of the civil rights movement. David Oyelowo captures King’s resonant voice and lyrical expressions incredibly well. It also avoids hagiography and deals with the well-documented flaws in King’s life.
The reason ‘Selma’ is a great film is because of the way it weaves the political battle with the personal stories of those involved. Behind this famous movement, lay countless stories of people tired of injustice and who had the courage to stand up against it.
The film opens with King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his achievements, but there is no resting on his laurels. When he returns to the US, he goes to see the President Lyndon B. Johnston (Tom Wilkinson) to press the need for reform to the voting system which effectively excluded black people from the ballot in many southern states.
The encounters between King and LBJ are masterfully portrayed. LBJ was a skilled and wily political operator who is reluctant to change his agenda for what King is demanding. In one scene an exasperated LBJ shouts at King: ‘You’re an activist, I’m the President. You’ve got one problem, I’ve got hundred and one problems.’
King also faced much opposition and disputes within the civil rights movement where the activists of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) resented the publicity King created and parodied him as ‘De Lawd’. It captures well the fractious alliance that King was able to hold together for the greater good.
But the power of the film lies in the way it conveys the personal stories of those who marched and protested for change. This is where King becomes just one person amid many who were beaten, imprisoned and killed for standing against the injustice.
We see four girls chatting about their hair as they walk down to their church basement before a bomb blows the building apart. We see the humiliation of Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) who is continually denied in her attempts to register to vote. We see the anger and resolve that grows in Jimmy Lee Jones and his family as they are drawn into the protests. We see the conviction growing in others, such as the Boston clergyman, James Reeb, who responds to King’s call to come to Alabama to join the march.
In addition, we see the personal cost to Coretta King because of the constant death threats to her and her children. And we see the pain she experiences when the FBI send her recordings from bugged hotel rooms of her husband being unfaithful. These historical realities are neither exaggerated nor ignored – they are simply true parts of the story that need to be told.
And lastly, ‘Selma’ does not air-brush out the spirituality at the heart of the civil rights movement. The scenes of King’s sermons in churches capture the spiritual vibrancy which fueled the movement. And the churches are accurately portrayed as the organisational bedrock from which the civil rights movement operated.
And at a key moment in the story – when King is faced with a decision about whether or not to lead protesters to cross the bridge out of Selma, we see him kneeling in prayer to gain guidance and clarity about what to do. It is in God that this famous clergyman found the resources to deal with the challenges he faced.
‘Selma’ is a powerful, moving and uplifting film, and I would urge everyone to go and see it.