Friday, January 2, 2015


By D.E.Levine

Fifty years after Martin Luther King won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, Selma opens with a scene between Dr. King (David Oyelowo) and his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) in a hotel room in Oslo, Norway, just prior to being awarded the prize.

Oyelowo looks and speaks amazingly like the Martin Luther King we see in newsreels.  It's almost as if his portrayal is channeling the civil rights leader.

King returns to America just as President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) has pushed the Civil Rights Act , ending legalized segregation, through Congress.  He now intends to concentrate on the War on Poverty.  But, King insists that the next step should be a voting rights act that will abolish the literacy and civics tests that are used in the South to legally prevent African-Americans from voting in elections.  These tests are preventing millions of citizens from participating in electing officials.

The film portrays King fighting Johnson over the matter in the Oval Office.  King knows that a protest march is planned for the 50 miles between Selma, Alabama and the state capitol in Montgomery.  King is also aware that when the marchers demand their right to vote, white racists who are backed by Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) will provoke violence in public where it will be seen by TV and newspaper reporters.  Johnson understands how damaging such an explosive confrontation can be and wants to avoid it.

Originally scripted in 2007, the project went through numerous "name" directors such as Spike Lee,  Lee Daniels. Stephen Frears and others.  Oyelowo advicated for a little known black female director named Ava DuVernay.  Finally, with producing and financial support from Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt, Pathe U.K. agreed to finance the project and Paramount agreed to distribution.

Getting it done on only 20 million dollars, DuVernay has produced a very good film that recounts the events leading up to the march from Selma to Montgomery and the march itself.  Avoiding the normal biopic concentration, DuVernay instead concentrates on the political machinations and King's ability to dominate logistical strategy session.

Many of the scenes portrayed, such as the attack on marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, with tear gas, whips and clubs, were staged from actual TV archival footage.  On that day, March 7, 1965, there were many injuries.  But out of that attack came action by the government to protect the marchers during a future demonstration.

There has been some controversy over whether the scenes between King and Johnson in the White House are accurate.  We'll probably never know for sure since no recordings have surfaced.  We do know that Johnson was motivated to push the Voting Rights Act through Congress and open the doors for millions of African-Americans to register and vote.

Many of the organizers and marchers are still alive today and are prominent in this country's political system.  Some are noted at the end of the film.  What is taken for granted today, was won through tenacity and the spilling of blood only 50 years ago.