‘Selma’ a Powerful Reminder that History Does Repeat

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CHICAGO – With exquisite timing, the historical docudrama “Selma” will ring in 2015, and adds to the race-oppression-in-America debate that everything old is new again. Set in 1965, it is the courageous story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the ordinary citizens that fought for the right to vote.

The events unfold calmly and forthrightly in the film, as Dr. King and his divided civil rights movement start another journey, to assure voting rights for the African American citizens of Alabama in the town of Selma, denied to them by a segregationist government and supporting citizens (including the police). It is an emotional and human film, highlighting the titanic struggle of Dr. King, the African American citizens of Alabama (who braved beatings and murder), and a United States government and judiciary bent not on necessarily doing the right thing, but the most politically expedient thing. As we come back to our current debate regarding Ferguson, Cleveland, New York and other areas of this country, we ask again “are we truly equal, and aren’t all persons created that way?”

In 1965, the city of Selma, Alabama, is still denying voting rights to black citizens, as represented by a elaborate test given to Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) that she can’t possible pass. Local civil rights activists begin counter protests to the denials, and controversially call in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo), two years after his “I Have a Dream” speech.

David Oyelowo
Truth Keeps Marching: David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (center) in ‘Selma’
Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

Dr, King is getting push back from student leaders and others, bent on more direct confrontation than his non-violent resistance. King’s presence in Selma is immediately seen a threat to both Governor George C. Wallace (Tim Roth) and the political maneuverings of President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). When King and the Alabama voting rights supporters attempt three different crossings of the Edward Pettis bridge in Selma, to march to the State Capitol, three historic confrontations of the civil rights movement occur.

The film – directed with passion by Ava DuVernay and written by Paul Webb – is first and foremost a human story. It focuses on the civil rights struggle from the highest leaders to the street soldier marchers. It creates an appropriate and balanced political representation at the governmental levels, and the stakes (and fear) that each person on those levels had to endure. It has a defining performance by David Oyelowo as Dr. King, nuanced and inspiring. All these elements come together to create an understanding for a powder keg situation, and the fuse still burns.

The representation of the era is precise, and the supporting cast each create bits for their performances that keep the humanity at the forefront. Carmen Ejogo as Dr. King’s wife Coretta has to disseminate the lies and propaganda of a vicious FBI smear campaign against her husband. Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon Johnson steps away from caricature and performs the strange dance of what is right and what is politically advantageous. Oprah Winfrey, one of the most powerful show business influencers and wealthiest persons in the world, represents herself substantially as just another black person trying to vote in the 1960s segregated South, and her familiarity strikes an important chord.

There is a debate in the film, and it is part of the richness of what is at stake. This was a time when King’s efforts of non-violent resistance was getting a push back by other leaders like Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) and younger student activists. This splintering actually anticipates the riots of Watts and Detroit within the next two years, and ultimately the assassination of Dr. King in 1968. The trials of Selma feels like the last gasp of monumental progress that the civil rights movement accomplished, before the establishment infiltrated and dissolved the power and sympathy that the movement generated.

David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson
Dr. King Meets President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in ‘Selma’
Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

How does the timing of the film affect our current debate? I counter that it can have a healing emotion. That with the power of the people we can hear a message, and not be afraid to make change because of this message. So much of the governmental reaction is fear and loathing. Fear that their cushy government jobs (president, governor, police chief) will go away, and loathing in their consciousness when contributing to societal hate. Whatever lessons come from “Selma,” they can be applied to now, if experienced authentically.

Dr. King quoted an older African American woman in his speech that he finally gave on the Alabama State Capitol steps after the march. She was part of the bus boycotts of the 1950s, the spark that launched the modern civil rights movement. She said her feet were tired but her soul was rested. If you feel tired about the current debate, “Selma” can rest your soul.

“Selma” has a limited release in Chicago on January 1st, 2015, and opens everywhere on January 9th. Featuring David Oyelowo, Giovanni Ribisi, Tim Roth, Cuba Gooding Jr., Oprah Winfrey, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Common, Martin Sheen and Wendell Pierce. Written by Paul Webb. Directed by Ava DuVernay. Rated “PG-13”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2015 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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