★★★★★ Selma | This extraordinary wonderful new film that finally brings Nobel Peace Laureate Dr. Martin Luther King centre stage in a Hollywood movie focuses on just one of the most crucial periods in his life.
After the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act had made segregation illegal, most of the South simply ignored the new Law and still followed the old Jim Crow statutes of discrimination, and so towns like Selma in Alabama remained very dangerous places for its vast black population.
One of the major stumbling blocks for any progress was voter-registration as the local authorities found a wide range of arcane laws to both deny and intimidate any African/Americans who tried to get on the voting roll. Without the right to vote the minority white community still wielded all the power that they could use to violent suppress and control anyone with a black skin.
The movie really starts after a yearlong anti-segregation campaign by King and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Campaign (SCLC) in Albany, Georgia, which had failed, miserable as it had attracted very little media attention. For once the local authorities had met King’s non-violent protest uncharacteristically without the usual violent recriminations. After another aborted attempt to persuade President Lyndon Johnson to introduce new legislation to mandate voter registration, King was persuaded that the next venue for his campaign should be Selma. He had one simple question to ask his organizers and it was about the nature of the local Sheriff Jim Clark. Once he had established that the extremely racist Clark was an unashamed bully and thug who would literally stop at nothing to defeat them, then King decided that Selma was the perfect place. His plan was to march to Montgomery the state Capital to publicly confront the notorious right-wing Republican Governor George Wallace.
The movie shows the dissent behind the leadership’s decision to stage the March and particularly vocal were the less confrontational local Student Committee who were opposed to King’s plan but when both all final attempts to persuade Johnson failed, and some local fruitless mediation stalled, everyone came on board for the March.
This time the events were being covered not just by the press but also live on national television so when the police and troopers charged and brutally assaulted the marchers as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge images of all the horrific violence inflicted in this peaceful crowd that included women and children were flashed across screens of the entire nation. This unforgettable ghastly conflict on March 7, 1965 would become known as ‘Bloody Sunday’.
King had missed the March as he was at home trying to save his marriage after his wife Coretta had learnt of his latest affair, but as we had discovered earlier from the FBI who kept tight surveillance on the couple, she also had more than the occasional dalliance too.
Back in Selma, King used the public outcry about the violence as a national rallying cry to clergy across the country to come to Alabama to support his people, and they did just that in droves. Now that the crowd was no longer full of just African/Americans no-one knew how the second attempt at the March would turn out, least of all King who surprised everyone by changing his mind enroute.
The movie ends with President Johnson conceding and finally introducing the Voter Registration legislation in Congress, and with the sight of King making his victorious speech on the steps of Montgomery’s Capital after they had been eventually allowed to legally make the March.
The most remarkable thing about this magnificent flawless and totally inspirational movie is that Ava DuVernary an ex film publicist with who has just directed two small indie movies too date directed it. Ms. DuVernary who did such a stunning job in capturing this essential part of the US’s history with such authenticity and compassion was also responsible for re-writing much of Brit Paul Webb’s script. She also made some great casting calls especially with her lead actor David Oyelowo who had also starred in her second movie the critically acclaimed ‘Middle of Nowhere’. Oyelowo, a Brit, has these wonderful piercing eyes which seem to speak as much as his words in this powerful mesmerising performance that has you riveted to the screen. Another Brit, the beautiful Carmen Ejogo, known mainly for her television work including a made-for-TV movie called Boycott in 2001 in which she also played Mrs. King, plays Coretta. Amongst the other Brits in the cast: superb Tom Wilkinson as a lanky and rather annoyed President Johnson and a brilliant Tim Roth as the self-righteous George Wallace, there were also a fair sprinkling of illustrious American talent too. Including Oprah Winfrey (also a Producer) with a impressive dignified performance as hospice worker Annie Lee Cooper, Giovanni Ribisi as Johnson’s Advisor, Alessandro Nivola as John Doar, André Holland as Andrew Young, Martin Sheen as Judge Johnson and an almost unrecognisable Cuba Gooding Jnr. playing it straight as lawyer Fred Gray.
Filmed on location in Selma, credit is due to some particularly memorable photography, especially of the violence that occurred during Bloody Sunday, from cinematographer Bradford Young, and also an impressive soundtrack that so beautifully sidestepped all the usual clichés protest songs.
DuVernary’s brilliant movie deliberately means to disturb you from the shocking opening that sets the tone for the whole 127 minutes of this potent story. She tells it with such passion and dignity and as the actual archive newsreel blends in at the end, you are reminded that this is not fiction at all, but real life, and something that somehow fills us with both shame and pride at the same time.