Oscars nomination: Best Picture
Four young black girls clad in yellow dresses with big bows and floppy hands walk down the stairs of their church. They are happy and carefree, discussing things like their favorite hairstyles and swimming class. In the background, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech plays.
“I accept this honor for the more than twenty million American Negroes who are motivated by dignity,” King said. “Together, we believe that what the illusion of supremacy has destroyed, the truth of equality can nourish.”
A few seconds later, a white supremacist group bombs the church, and all of the girls die.
This powerful beginning scene sets the tone for Ava DuVernay’s cinematic masterpiece “Selma,” a movie that chronicles three marches Dr. King planned and led from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in the 1960s. Though the movie is focused on King, DuVernay’s approach to the coverage of such a critical point in United States history lends complexity to a movement that is often portrayed in a limited manner. David Oyelowo’s brilliant portrayal of King is particularly noteworthy.
“I always knew that in order to play Dr. King, I had to have God flow through me because when you see Dr. King giving those speeches, you see that he is moving in his anointing,” Oyelowo said in an interview with bestselling author Jim Wallis.
His portrayal of King, magnified by the performances of Oprah Winfrey as Annie Cooper and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, depicts the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement in an insightful way. Oyelowo while serving as a reminder that the fight for black rights is far from over.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the movie is the way in which King is represented. He is no longer just a symbol of a movement. He is a powerful and effective leader, but he is also human. DuVernay’s inclusion of scenes that illustrate King’s personal life and family is a successful break from the highly publicized speaker most people recognize him as. The movie includes scenes like ones in which King’s wife questions their marriage, and confronts him about his infidelities. There are even scenes that just show his wife, Coretta, agonizing over where her husband is, and worrying about whether or not he is safe. Scenes like this humanize King, and show us that no matter how great or powerful someone may seem, he/she endures the same issues as everyone else. The movie illustrates that all great movements, including the movement for racial equality, aren’t conducted by people greater than us, but instead are led by ordinary people.
The inclusion of prominent historical figures such as Malcolm X in “Selma” is important because they help illustrate the fact that the fight for Civil Rights was quite convoluted. King was not the only man with a vision for how equality should be achieved. In fact, there was often tension between King and Malcolm X, something that comes up in the film. Part of the movies brilliance is the fact that it highlights King, and also creates a rich and multifaceted story to show that King was not the only influential figure during the Civil Rights Movement.
“Selma” shows us there were multiple groups invested in this movement. Characters like Annie Cooper, excellently played by Oprah Winfrey, highlight the struggle everyday black men and women faced in the 1960s in America, and illustrate how important these people were in enacting change. An early scene in the movie shows Annie trying to register to vote. The white clerk asks her a variety of unnecessarily difficult questions, including to name all the county judges in Alabama. When she can’t do this, he refuses to let her register. Her anger then leads her to join many of the marches King leads. “Selma” emphasizes the hardships black Americans faced, and how those hardships led them to become politically involved.
“Selma” is more than just a history lesson. It’s a call to action. Its multidimensional approach to a complicated issue serves as a reminder that civil rights is something that affects everyone, and this is particularly important in light of recent events. The police brutality we see inflicted by white police officers on black Americans in “Selma” is unsettlingly similar to the police brutality we have seen recently in light of cases such as Eric Garner, Michael Brown and many more. This is ultimately what has made “Selma” Oscar-worthy: a brilliant cast, apt dialogue, and themes and events that are still relatable, despite occurring nearly fifty years ago.
“The ideology that would sanction the beating and killing of black Americans who dared to assert their citizenship has not vanished, though its methods, language and partisan affiliations may have changed since 1965,” A.O. Scott of the New York Times said.
“Selma” shows us that in order to understand where we are today in terms of racial relations, it’s important to understand where we have come from. We still have a long way to go for absolute racial equality, and events like the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri illustrate that the incidents of “Selma” are not as distant as they seem. “Selma” is a both of a celebration of the triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement and a reminder of the progress that still needs to made— and it couldn’t have come at a better time.