Movie Selma breathes new life into MLK

Johanna Pugh

It is strange to think how 1965 really was not that long ago.

Just 50 years ago in the south, racial discrimination, tension and violence was at an all-time high.

The film “Selma” follows the story of African-American pastor, humanitarian and nonviolent civil rights activist and leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during his involvement in the Selma voting rights movement.

The population of Selma, Alabama was 50 percent black but only one percent of black citizens were registered to vote. They found themselves victims of intimidation and violence when they tried to register for a right they were legally supposed to have.

This world where “negro” was an ethnicity to be filled out on a rejected voter registration form is not a fictitious one; the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing where four girls were killed by KKK terrorist acts was real. The brutal result of the “Bloody Sunday” protest march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge was real.

These people, these events and this struggle to obtain voting rights which left many people injured or dead and many more left trying to keep the movement going in their wake. People were arrested, assaulted, killed and prevented from having the constitutional right to vote as an American citizen because of the color of their skin.

“What is that?” King asked, sitting next to one of his advisers in a county jail cell in the aftermath of an initially peaceful protest. “Is that equality?”

Like any historical film adaptation, there are parts that were deemed as embellished — this film has received backlash for its portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson — and some left out, but amid the criticisms it is good to keep in mind that historical event films are art forms with a purpose. In the two hours she had, director Ava DuVernay succeeded in capturing and humanizing the man and paying homage to the spirit of the movement he stood in front of.

British actor David Oyelowo, who has been a solid supporting player in a number of historic African-American films in recent years such as “Red Tails” and Lee Daniels’ “The Butler”, stands strong at the center of the film as King. His thoughtful cadence and demeanor captures the icon students hear bits about during Black History Month in elementary school.

The camera trails closely behind King as he leaves and enters a room, lingers as his head bows in prayer. The lighting of the film casts him in both shadow and light, the writing, directing and editing all bring consideration to the man behind the struggle.

He was not portrayed as a flawless hero; his peaceful tactics were questioned by his followers and his marital infidelity vaguely hinted at in the film. But what the film does well is highlighting that he was a human being. He was a man who wanted change in a world where the color of one’s skin dehumanized them in someone else’s eyes.

DuVernay’s work did not hide the violence people faced. In fact, she slowed the moments down and kept the shots up-close and shocking — the church explosion in the beginning which left the young girls strewn across the screen or Jimmie Lee Jackson’s (Lakeith Lee Stanfield) reaction as he received a fatal gunshot wound to the abdomen while protecting his family or Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) being slammed down upon pavement by state troopers — these moments were made all the more gut-wrenching by delaying and focusing intimately on the characters for the audience to really grasp the gravity and the pain and the loss and the lack of justice in these situations real human beings faced.

The film showed many people, both black and white, coming together to fight injustice and opposing viewpoints even within the same side. King was depicted good-naturely humored as a young John Lewis disagreed with his tactics; he emphasized that people want and deserve change and that it was good to see how much spirit young people had in joining the cause.

Released in a time where the events in Ferguson, Missouri are just months behind us, the film, although indirectly, poses a question: in times of racial tension still present today, where is that same motivation and unity that was once present?

Toward the end of the film, as marchers make their way down unpaved roads to Montgomery, the film supplements the moment with actual footage of the five-day, 54-mile march. Young people marching alongside their parents. Disapproving bystanders waving Confederate flags on the streets. Military on standby.

In modern times where tear-gassing a group of peaceful protestors is not a thing of the past, where people of color are still victims of hate crimes or discrimination –being followed while shopping in a store, being shut out of nominations for the Academy Awards or being shot by a police officer who is not indicted for the crime — this was an important story to be seen and heard, especially by those who were unaware of what happened and the gravity of these situations.

“Selma” is not a cookie-cutter, saintly biopic. It is a thoughtfully-made American film that encapsulates and honors a time that is not that far away in the past of our nation’s history.

Following a small collection of made-for-TV HBO and Disney movies that covered this topic, this feature film was one that needed to be made, and it was made well.