Heart in my throat, I watched them prance down the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church, chatting about hair styles and giggling as little girls do, completely unaware of the decimating blast that was mere seconds away. After the nauseating boom their little bodies flew through the air in slow motion, and as the camera panned out it left us with a view of broken boards and bricks and a picture of the innocent blood shed in the height of the civil rights battle that consumed the American South in the 1960s. Many people say everything changed in Birmingham when those little girls were killed. There was no longer room for silence or hesitation or cowardice among those who knew what was right.
This scene from the new film Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, was just one of many that felt perfectly symbolic of the entire civil rights movement. It was hard to watch and harder, still, to watch many others that brought to life the actual events that took place in Selma, Alabama as black Americans peacefully yet at great cost fought for the right to vote. Each moment built upon the other as tensions in Selma boiled over to stirring the entire nation to opinion, involvement, and action. All of this led to the infamous march from Selma to Montgomery, which we now know as “Bloody Sunday.” It was the first of three (confession: I did not know there were THREE) attempts to march from Selma to Montgomery in demonstration of being denied the right to vote because of skin color. Many people say that in America, everything changed with these events that took place in Selma.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is masterfully portrayed by David Oyewolo. His appearance and vocal inflections are spot on in comparison to every video and audio clip you will find featuring MLK. Carmen Ejogo mirrors both images and the gracious legacy of Coretta Scott King beautifully as well. Oprah Winfrey makes an appearance as the all-too-unfamous Annie Lee Cooper, a woman of color consistently denied the right to vote, despite multiple peaceful attempts through the proper application process. Martin Sheen as Frank Johnson, the rule-following judge who was on the side of justice and equality yet also unapologetically faithful to the letter of the law and court protocol.
Those are just a few among the characters in Selma who were easy to like. The heroes.
Tom Wilkinson as foul-mouthed Lyndon B. Johnson wasn’t as easy to appreciate. Though many recall LBJ as a great hero of the Civil Rights Movement, Selma paints a much different picture. Hero still, though reluctantly so. Tom Roth is simply skin-crawling as George C. Wallace. From the absolute absurdity of his arguments to his calculated dedication to ignorance, his legacy at best - of this time period, at least - is that of utter madness.
Though it may not go into great detail in some regards, the film does not shy away completely from hard truths about Dr. King, just as with any other character in this section of history. Rightly hailed as the great civil rights hero he was, the man was not inhumanly perfect. His weaknesses, from women to telling the WHOLE truth about certain situations in Selma, are addressed (though perhaps too lightly).
At its conclusion, I found myself torn between the desire to a) just sit and think and process it all and b) wanting to sidle up to one of the older audience members of color and conduct interviews about their thoughts and feelings...but then figured that would be very Weird White Lady of me. I opted for talking to my friends the next few days about what they remembered from the Selma marches and the Civil Rights movement in general or were taught growing up, and those conversations have been very meaningful. I have learned new things about Selma, Birmingham, and Bessemer that add another, closer dimension to the Civil Rights movement.
As a whole, Selma is a very moving and powerful film. Rated PG-13 for language (profanity and racial slurs are plentiful; this is a genuine reflection of the times) and violence (so, so much brutality), I consider it to be very well done; 4 stars out of 5 would be my official rating.
If you have been on the fence about Selma, go see it! You just may want to carefully consider taking your children. This is not a film I would show my girls...yet.
In the interest of painting a full picture, Selma is not without criticism. Below are links to other reviews as well as articles of both critique and rebuttal...debates, essentially, about the historical accuracy of the film. Read if you want, and judge for yourself!