Directed by Ava DuVernay, written by Paul Webb
In the past few years one of the issues American Democrats and Republican parties have been disagreeing on is voter registration. Republican lawmakers in several states have been tightening up the rules around voting—requiring two picture IDs, reducing the days in the early voting period, denying same-day registration—to prevent voter fraud, they said. When that was proved to be a non-issue, they had to find another excuse, which, according to this New York Times article, is “uniformity.”
It seems to me that any political party that works to make these kinds of changes but can’t decide the reasons for it is full of shit. And every piece I read about this subject, including this one, this one, and this one, suggests that the voter registration changes discourage lower income, Latino, and African-American citizens from voting, all of whom are more likely to vote Democrat.
And so it goes. Stuff like this floated through my head as I watched Selma—a wonderful, moving film that brings an important piece of American civil rights history to life, but has a hell of a lot to say to us about today.
It’s been 50 years since the events depicted in the film—Martin Luther King and his followers marched in Selma, Alabama, in protest of voting rules, poll taxes, and vouchers, rules that discriminated against African-Americans. The statistic that’s given in the film is that even though 50% of the residents of the town were black, only 2% voted. So even though they had the right to vote, they were systemically discouraged by the people in charge. Those marches led to the establishment of the Voting Rights Act, which did away with those obstacles.
DuVernay’s film is gracefully told for a relative neophyte director, with a confidence in the camerawork and editing, but its no Martin Luther King hagiography. It manages to depict King (an impressive performance by British actor David Oyelowo) as a man who inspired people around him, but also fallible, someone who, for instance, struggled in his marriage to his supportive but understandably terrified wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo).
He was also someone who knew what it took to get the attention of the American people at a time when change was needed. The film includes a telling scene where King meets with his allies and they explain their strategy, how their best tactic was to put themselves in the way of bodily harm from a belligerent, angry sheriff and his men while the press is nearby. It’s a practical lesson in non-violence to all activists today, but it could cost you your life.
Selma manages to avoid problems that beset many well-meaning historical dramas. It’s much more effective at sustaining an emotional engagement in the characters than the much drier and more procedural Lincoln, for example, with stretches of dialogue that actually sound like people talking rather than speechifying. I also liked Selma more than Milk, with which it shares some qualities, but does a better job of keeping the issues at front and centre rather than the man.
The film also clearly illustrates how there was dissent within the ranks of the activists, that not everyone was prepared to line up behind King, or agreed with everything he did. And how the FBI followed King from event to event—documented by the use of on-screen text representing FBI reports, which serves to give the audience a little context, too.
It’s an amusing irony that so many of the cast are Brits. Aside from Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson plays Lyndon B. Johnson. He doesn’t look much like the 36th President but fills his shoes capably, managing to even rustle up a little audience sympathy while he tries to put off King’s requests to address voting rights, eventually giving in to the will of the people. I have heard the film takes some liberties with its depiction of LBJ as an antagonist to King, that in fact they were more of the same mind on the issue.
Another Brit, Tim Roth, is the real villain of the piece as Alabama Governor George Wallace, who worked to maintain the status quo of the segregationist south.
Also in key roles in an excellent ensemble: Common, Wendell Pierce, Andre Holland, Alessandro Nivola, and Oprah Winfrey herself (also a producer of the film) as a resident of Selma.
Selma inspires a collection of strong feelings. I was moved by the vivid depiction of people who understood the importance of the workings of democracy in their lives, who fought for it. And, at the very same time, I was equally saddened when I think of how little progress has been made in the decades since those events.
With fewer than 60% of eligible American voters actually showing up to exercise their constitutionally protected right at the last presidential election in 2012, the movie serves as a great reminder that not so long ago people died to have the freedom to vote.
And, on a very visceral level, watch the scenes of protesters being brutalized by white police officers and try not to think about Michael Brown, Eric Garner, or Trayvon Martin.
Selma couldn’t be more timely, and it’s hard to imagine it being much better.