by Art Pronin, Guest Blogger
I saw the much discussed film “Selma.” It is the first big screen motion picture to feature Martin Luther King-you read that right! It is one that will live you. Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Young, both who were part of the Selma march in 1965, provided much on-set input. FBI recordings and notes are also utilized to provide a full picture. Directed by Ava DuVernay and starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Tom Wilkinson as President Johnson, and many women is small but memorable roles-such as Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper, Lorraine Toussaint as Amelia Boynton and Carmen Ejogo as Corretta Scott King, make for a highly emotional cinematic event.
The film is told through the vision of it’s director DuVernay, who is African American and a woman. She lovingly crafts a movie that focuses a movement that toppled the old order for a better nation, lead by a great man.
“Selma” opens with King accepting the Nobel Peace Prize of 1964. He returns home to black churches being bombed and the urgent need to let African Americans vote. MLK and LBJ wrangle over passing a voting rights bill. LBJ who wants blacks to vote, tells King he needs wait on such a bill given the Great Society programs needed more time to lift folks out of poverty. LBJ assures King he will get the voting bill, but not yet. So MLK takes his SCLC team to Selma, a place which had been organized for years for the fight to vote.
In Selma we meet many Americans whose names we should all know, but do not. Watching Annie Lee Cooper-played by Oprah-trying and trying to be registered to vote is hearbreaking. We see the risk King took to go down there, for as soon as he arrives he is punched in the face by a white man off the street.
We find MLK had a complex set of internal issues within the movement, such as with SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinated Committee) and John Lewis. Then there is Malcolm X who King’s wife Corretta meets with just weeks before his murder to try and broker a peace.
DuVernay shows us a MLK who is a human being with vices. One vice is his affairs. And the FBI makes sure she is tormented with detailed knowledge of some of these, which is illustrated hauntingly in a brilliant scene. The director also shows his greatness in oratory and knack for knowing how to push politicians and citizens into acting. We see a MLK who had real fears, a man who stood in horror having to watch his fellow protestors being beaten at the Selma courthouse, and time and again be told of a fellow in the cause being murdered. It is a moving portrait and a service to the viewer.
The march from Selma to Montgomery for the right to vote is done in a sweeping fashion in the movie. Hundreds gather and march across the Pettus Bridge on “Bloody Sunday” to do just that and are brutally beaten and some killed- on live national television. A national crisis ensues, with LBJ in the film urging MLK to back off a bit and Governor Wallace refusing to yield one inch. Finally a judge intercedes and orders MLK and marchers to be able have their march.
Once MLK crosses that bridge with thousands from all over America of all races, and the soul of nation is moved, he speaks at the state capitol steps. And, thanks to Oyelowo’s bravado performance, we see a powerhouse speech that rushes through your veins. It is here where we get to see what happened to these many people we got to know for two hours, and yes many are shown to have lost their lives, including MLK.
The film has received I believe unfair criticism over how LBJ is shown. Some say LBJ is portrayed as a bit too unfeeling toward the cause and dismissive at times. For me I watched and cheered Johnson as he showed disgust with the likes of Hoover and Wallace. The audience applauded when he told Wallace what he was and which side of history to be on. LBJ deserves his own film from Hollywood showing all he did to move this country forward, but this one is dedicated to MLK and the African Americans in Selma and their brave struggle. Let us recall that this is a movie, not a PBS documentary.
This movie’s timing, as America finds itself with voting rights being stripped and injustices being committed in places like Ferguson and New York, makes it so relevant. The directing by Ava DuVernay is on par with any other great director of cinema. The acting is very memorable, and provides this cast a rare chance to shine in a industry which affords rare spotlight for African Americans.
Selma focuses on the power of non-violent movements and how they can change things for the better. Make sure you, your children, friends and family all see this brilliantly made piece of work. This is our time’s most important film.
Art Pronin is a Houston Democratic activist and avid fan of films.