The Hippo


Jul 22, 2019









Selma (PG-13)
Film Reviews by Amy Diaz

By Amy Diaz

Selma (PG-13)

Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts to secure voting rights for all, and the Selma-to-Montgomery marches meant to draw publicity to that effort, are the focus of Selma.
It’s 1965 and King (David Oyelowo) arrives in Selma to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which has been trying with little success to register black voters in Alabama. Despite the 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Civil Rights Act, many African-Americans were kept away from the polls by local regulations about poll taxes, literacy tests and other unconstitutional but widely used restrictions. King’s plans in Alabama, a serious offender when it came to blocking voter registration, include demonstrations in front of the county court house and a march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery. Should the local sheriff react the way the activists expect — i.e. like a foaming-at-the-mouth racist — journalists and television cameras will be there to bring the images to the nation and force federal politicians’ hands when it comes to passing a voting rights act.
Specifically, at least in the way this movie tells it, King wants to push President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) into making voting rights a priority. Johnson, who muscled the Civil Rights Act through Congress, tells King he wants to tackle some of his Great Society poverty-focused initiatives before turning to voting rights. But King and his fellow activists see voting as the only way African-Americans can truly affect change: voters serve on juries (such as, say, the juries that consistently failed to convict white defendants of murdering civil rights activists) and voters elect the local politicians who can drag their feet about implementing federal laws. 
The movie walks us through the events in Selma — King’s rallying speeches, an initial protest that lands King in jail, the “Bloody Sunday” march where protesters were viciously beaten on a bridge by the sheriff and his officers, a nighttime march that led to the death of an activist, a second march to the bridge which attracted clergy of a variety of faiths and ethnicities, a lawsuit to lift an injunction on having a march and the eventual third march, ending in a speech by King in front of the state capitol building. We also see King’s discussions with Johnson, snippets of his at-times difficult relationship with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), a bit about Malcolm X’s (Nigel Thatch) visit to Selma and some of the clashes between activists, specifically with the members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who felt that King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference was parachuting in on their work. 
I found the behind-the-scenes of King’s operation in Selma to be the most interesting parts of the movie. I like it when movies about political events focus on, well, the politics — the deals, the grind of the legislative process, the grunt work of making a local cause a national cause and of turning the cause into concrete action. This, for me, is the cool part of seeing democracy at work on screen. Less interesting to me is dialogue that sounds more like speeches focused on “better angels” arguments. People risking personal harm on the chance that their brutal beatings will make other people in other parts of the country care about their cause is infinitely more powerful than a pretty monologue accompanied by swelling music. Perhaps this is part of what irks people about the role Johnson plays in this movie’s version of events. Instead of seeing a politician who enjoyed the down-and-dirty arm-twisting part of his job, we see Johnson and King or Johnson and George Wallace (Tim Roth) arguing voting rights (or at least the need to push for voting rights now) on its merits, which reads as false. 
This mushy philosophical stuff and some of the stuff about King’s personal woes — the toll his work took on his family and marriage, his general exhaustion, the constant threat of violence against him — pull the focus of what is otherwise a tightly constructed story about one moment in history, one moment that has a lot of present-day significance and resonance. 
I walked out of Selma feeling similar to the way I felt leaving Lincoln, that a little too much focus on personalities and feelings pulled the focus from the really dynamic and important story at its core. Still, Selma offers strong performances, particularly from Oyelowo, and searing images that bring a significant moment of not-so-distant history to life. B
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language. Directed by Ava DuVernay with a screenplay by Paul Webb, Selma is two hours and eight minutes long and is distributed by Paramount Pictures.
As seen in the January 15, 2015 issue.

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