Past the Popcorn: An Important Story Finally Gets Its Due in Selma


by Jeff Walls

It is difficult to believe that there has never been a theatrically released movie about Martin Luther King, Jr.  There have been a few versions on television, but none that have debuted on the big screen.  That changes this year with the release of Selma, an affecting drama about Dr. King’s fight to secure equal voting rights in the south.  Director Ava DuVernay focuses on the events leading up to the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and she creates a powerful drama, somewhat amazingly, considering she did not even have the rights to use any of Dr. King’s famous speeches.

The movie opens with Dr. King accepting the Nobel peace prize in 1964, followed by the tragic bombing death of four young girls.  After pleading with President Johnson to enact a law allowing persons of all races to vote unencumbered, Dr. King leads a team of activists to Selma, Alabama, a town ruled by a lawman who is not afraid to get violent.  Whereas Dr. King encourages peaceful demonstration and asks that his followers “resist, don’t retaliate,” he needs his adversaries in this fight to lean toward violence.  That will help to draw national attention to what is going on in Selma.

selma-insetThe crux of this drama comes when Dr. King organizes a march from Selma to the Alabama capital of Montgomery.  Dr. King knows that his first effort to accomplish this mission will incite violence, and it does as the peaceful marches are met with violence before they can even get out of the town.  As Dr. King had hoped, the message gets out to the rest of the country and many people of all different races come down to Selma to show their support and join the march.  That may not be enough, however, as Dr. King does need the help of the Johnson administration to truly bring voting equality to the South.

There has been some early criticism of this movie and much of it revolves around the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson.  Whereas he is generally considered to have been a stringent supporter of the civil rights movement, the movie initially shows him as reluctant, setting the issue aside for a while to deal with poverty.  I don’t pretend to be a historian, and most of my knowledge about Johnson comes from movies he has been featured in.  In this movie, although it does show him as hesitant to fulfill Dr. King’s wishes initially, I felt that overall it portrayed him in a positive light.  The movie even gave him a heroic moment in which the preview screening audience cheered him.

There have also been questions about how the film portrays the relationship between Dr. King and his wife, but I feel that if filmgoers get too caught up in how historically accurate the movie is they will miss the ultimate point of the movie and fail to appreciate it.  And this is a movie that deserves to be appreciated.

Dr. King is the figurehead for the movement, but really this movie is about the people of Selma and those who joined them in their march.  It is about the people who knew they were going to be faced with hate and violence, but marched anyway because they knew the importance of the issue and cared about it deeply.  These people are portrayed wonderfully, both by famous faces like Oprah Winfrey and lesser-known actors.  These characters are the heart of the story and nowhere is that more apparent than a scene in which one of these characters must mourn the violent death of his grandson.  He does so, not by focusing on how sad he was for how his grandson had died, but rather by how proud he was of how he lived.  It is one of the most emotionally powerful scenes I have ever seen thanks in no small part to the performance of the featured actor, whom I cannot even seem to find on IMDb.  It is a small part, but nevertheless I feel he deserves some serious Oscar consideration.

David Oyelowo is currently considered to be a favorite for this year’s Best Actor Oscar and it would be well deserved.  He is a relatively unknown actor, but he has shown up in several big movies over the past few years.  Whether you recognize him or not going in, however, he will soon completely disappear and become Martin Luther King.  He is perfect both in his quieter moments and in his big speeches—speeches that are powerful and effective, even if they had to be reworked from the real-life version due to rights issues.

Recognition must also go to director Ava DuVernay for crafting a drama that rarely missteps, if ever.  I was especially impressed by the violent scene that comes when the marchers make their first attempt to go from Selma to Montgomery.  While the violence is happening on screen, on the audio track it is narrated by a newspaper reporter who is relaying the events back to his office via telephone.  The split helps the audience to identify both with the victims of the assault and with the many Americans across the country watching the violence on the television or listening to it on the radio.  It is a very clever way of presenting two different perspectives at once.

The story of Selma is a very important one in American history that deserved to be told, and fortunately the filmmakers found a way to make it emotionally resonate all these years later.

Selma opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16 and AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Eat local before you go!

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