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Selma (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 21, 2023



SELMA (2014)

Starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Carmen Ejogo, André Holland, Martin Sheen, Cuba Gooding Jr., Oprah Winfrey, Common, Dylan Baker, Giovanni Ribisi, Alessandro Nivola, Wendell Pierce, Stephan James, Nigel Thatch, Tessa Thompson, Colman Domingo, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Omar J. Dorsey, Stephen Root, Ledisi Young, Niecy Nash, Martin Sheen and Lorraine Toussaint.

Screenplay by Paul Webb.

Directed by Ava DuVernay.

Distributed by Paramount Pictures.  122 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

The assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King was one of the definitive events of the last millennium.

The tragic early death of the civil rights pioneer is not dramatized in director Ava DeVernay’s bio-pic of Dr. King.  This is not a life-spanning overview of the man’s accomplishments, instead it takes a look at a very specific part of his life and the fight for equality, mostly over a period of a year and a half between September 1963 and March of 1965.

Of course this was a very important part of his life, during which he won the Nobel Peace Prize and helped to bring the Civil Rights act of 1964 to fruition.  In the heavily segregated Jim Crow south, to paraphrase Sam Cooke’s classic, a change was gonna come, and Dr. King was more responsible for these changes than most anyone.

Selma also looks at such problems as poll taxes, separate-but-equal standing in public transportation, restaurants and rest rooms, bigotry, lynching and many of the other shames of the Jim Crow south.

However, the main thrust of Selma is the pair of marches that King led in the title city in March of ’65.

In early March 1965, King led a peaceful march in Selma, Alabama across the Edmund Pettis Bridge (ironically named after a Confederate general in the Civil War and former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan) despite widespread warnings that the police would consider it an act of aggression and punish the marchers mercilessly.

True to their word, the police violently attacked and beat the protestors – including a very young congressman John Lewis – a show of brutality that ended up backfiring and turning public opinion towards the Thomas Jefferson quote that King later paraphrased in his “I Have a Dream” speech – that “all men are created equal.”

Relatively unknown actor David Oyelowo (who we interviewed a few years ago about his films 96 Minutes and Red Tails) does a stunning, star-making job in the potentially thankless job of playing such an iconic role.  He is able to convey King’s passionate determination as well as his human imperfection, showing MLK as a man and not just a martyr.

The rest of the cast is terrific too, a huge ensemble cast showing all the effort and people needed to make a huge societal change.

Selma is a terrific film and a rousing lesson in history.  But…

There has been a certain amount of controversy about the filmmakers decision to portray former President Lyndon Johnson (as played by Tom Wilkinson) as something of a bad guy and a deterrent to progress.  This is a legitimate complaint against the film.  Johnson was a good friend of King’s and a passionate champion of civil rights at great political cost for himself and his party.  There were certainly enough bad guys in this story – Alabama governor George Wallace chief amongst them and accounted for in a squirrely performance by Tim Roth – that LBJ’s name didn’t have to be dragged through the mud.  His legacy does deserve better.

That said, this is certainly not the first biographical film that changed some of the facts for dramatic license.  This is one imperfection in a film that is overall pretty darned close to perfect.  There are a few other small pieces of dramatic license.  Who could possibly know if the famous “four little girls” were really discussing Coretta Scott King’s hair when the bomb went off in the church that killed them?  That seems like a screenplay device to me.  But these little fabrications have to be overlooked because they play a big part in telling the essential truth of this vitally important story.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2015 All rights reserved. Posted: May 5, 2015.


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