Selma is a powerful and moving film that spotlights a brief episode in America’s civil rights movement. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) is a man who can remain calm and non-violent but can also ignite an audience with his fiery delivery from a pulpit. Selma is billed as a true story, although many have questioned the accuracy of certain key plot elements.
The historic Civil Rights act passed Congress in 1964 but, as the movie begins, blacks in the South are still not allowed to register to vote. King visits President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in the White House and asks that the administration support federal voting rights legislation. LBJ is hesitant and continually puts off MLK.
King and his lieutenants choose Selma, Alabama, as the place to begin a march to the state capitol in Montgomery, about 50 miles away. King’s group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) has disagreements with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) about tactics. Despite resistance from Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston), the march begins. The police attack the marchers.
For decades Martin Luther King has been seen mainly as an icon, in video and audio clips and photos. Selma humanizes the man. He’s shown sharing social occasions with his SCLC colleagues. He works to engage the SNCC crew, which has similar goals, but wants a greater share of the glory. King’s womanizing is addressed as wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) listens to FBI-provided tapes of an extramarital liaison.
There has been a chorus of uproar from individuals about the film’s depiction of Lyndon Johnson and his commitment to King and voting rights for blacks. Diane McWhorter who wrote Carry Me Home, a book about the civil rights effort in my and her hometown of Birmingham, has said, “With the portrayal of L.B.J., I kept thinking, ‘Not only is this not true, it’s the opposite of the truth.’”
In all movies that tell true-life stories, a filmmaker may embellish the narrative to add drama and conflict. Is director Ava DuVernay’s alleged sin regarding LBJ so egregious that it renders the film meaningless? Certainly not.
The film’s depictions of the disrespect, the beatings, the shootings and the bombings suffered by blacks in Alabama in the 1960s are brutal and direct. I believe they reflect what actually happened.
I find it ironic though that for this story, a vital part of America’s volatile 20th century history, DuVernay has chosen British actors to portray King, LBJ, George Wallace and even Coretta Scott King. One would think that there are capable American actors available to play these truly American roles.