By Okema “Seven” Gunn
“Selma” engenders a unique and empowering glimpse of wonderful storytelling about the events and details surrounding the Voting Act of 1965. This must see movie yields a more illuminating account of the marches on Selma and major players and contributors of history. This biopic film commences with a close-up of Dr. King (David Oyewolo) preparing for his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize Speech in Stockholm, while speaking intimately with wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo). I can only imagine that writer Paul Webb wished to portray the humility of King by rendering his appearance vulnerable, familiar, and authentic among audiences, since King has often been canonized as an icon of the Civil Rights Movement. Other eye-opening beginning sequences include: the persistent denial of voting rights to activist Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey), who fills out a form, which was repudiated. Even though she was abreast of political knowledge of her county, the registrar denies Annie’s application claiming that she can’t recite all 67 county judges. The next sequence depicts the 16th Street Baptist Church incident in Birmingham, Alabama, where African American children chatted briefly. Subsequently, 4 little girls are killed after a bomb explodes within the basement church. This particular event has been regarded as a major turning point for the Civil Rights Movement also contributing to the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The scenes convey great imagery creating a racially charged, transitional Jim Crow South as a backdrop; however, these particular opening scenes were not developed in real chronological order as the events in history unfolded.
“Selma” serves as a compelling chronicle, which magnifies long-standing tension, racial inequality, and brutality embedded within the fabric of the United States. While federal law decreed all men and women possessed the right to vote, local and state government prevented citizens from voting without any rebuttal or argument. How could a country that claimed that it was fighting for democracy, send black troops to be slaughtered in Vietnam, while back at home these same individuals were not respected as citizens nor were they honored for their valor? In 1964, civil liberties were still being denied, the same as they had been for generations.
Our story develops as Dr. King urges President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to uphold the enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, stating that blacks had still been refused the right to vote by de facto law (informal practices) and also physically violated/killed. He propositions Johnson to help pass legislation protecting blacks as they go to the polls to vote. Johnson acknowledges King’s request, but states that his hands are tied and that he has a lot on his plate like the Vietnam War. Johnson tells King that he has “bigger fish to fry” and asks him to be patient until the can get a handle on other national issues that take more precedent. Dr. King and other activists become irritated by Johnson’s lackadaisical concern to the Voting Rights issue. They begin planning for a strategic counter-response by garnering support from other advocates and civil rights groups.
King converses with SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) exploring numerous non-violent actions and strategies for protests. The collaboration causes a rift among the young activists of SNCC, spearheaded by James Forman (Trai Byers) and John Lewis (Stephan James). Dr. King makes a trip to Selma with activists, Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Ralph Abernathy (Coleman Domingo), James Orange (Omar Dorsey), and Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson). The group meets to talk about plans with (DVCL) Dallas County Voters League, Rev. James Bevel(Common) and other civil rights activists from SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) including Hosea Williams(Wendell Pierce) and Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint). While signing into a hotel, one of the white male guests assaults King in the lobby. Johnson hears of the event and proceeds carefully, not wishing to make Dr. King more of a martyr for the movement than he already appears to be. President Johnson conferences with J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) about how to handle Dr. King. Hoover recommends a more strategic approach to trigger tension in the King household. Coretta receives disturbing phone calls and a tape that suggests that Dr. King has met with other women on his trips. She confronts him about her reservations about his fidelity. Later, he calls Mahalia Jackson (Ledisi Young) to pray and sing him a spiritual hymn to calm his anxiety.
During a gathering at Selma, black citizens assembled peaceably at the county courthouse. Protesters kneel down with their hands behind their heads. Annie assaults Sherriff Clark (Stan Houston) for beating down an elderly protester, Cager Lee (Henry G. Sanders). She is beaten down by police officers and thrown in jail along with other protesters with Dr. King. While in prison Coretta speaks to Amelia and is paid a visit by Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), who offers her a source of support and comfort. Coretta speaks softly to her husband in jail, but he expresses his disdain for the likes of a militant Malcolm X, reminding Coretta that he called King an updated version of an “Uncle Tom”. After protesters are released, they participate in a night march. George Wallace (Tim Roth) and local officials planned an ambush of the protesters, police beating them and threw tear gas. During this night protest in Marion, Alabama, an unarmed protester, Jimmie Lee Jackson, the grandson of Cager Lee, (Keith Stanfield) dies in a restaurant after a state trooper shoots him in cold blood. Dr. King visits Cager Lee in the morgue offering continual support, furthermore, promising to continue what Jimmie Lee stood for.
King delivers a riveting speech, which addresses the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X. He affirms that Jimmie Lee Jackson did not die in vain; that an unrelenting struggle would ensue until the voices of the people would be heard. Dr. King continues to get threats, especially pertaining to his children.
On March 7, 1965, Hosea Williams, Amelia Boynton, John Lewis and a few activists lead a peaceful protest march from Selma to Montgomery (approx. 600 people). Police tell marchers to turn back. They refuse. Tear gas is thrown and protesters are brutally beaten with police batons. The event becomes known throughout history as “Bloody Sunday”. The televised event swells into a National and International controversy. Gov. Wallace and Pres. Johnson become outraged trying to quell media frenzy and embarrassment. After this protest, King makes a call to white clergy sympathizers and other civil rights supporters to aid in the next march.
This second march on Selma, March 9, 1965, was known as “Turn Around Tuesday” lead by King. Protesters arrived at the Edmund Pettus Bridge unharmed. King decided not to continue a full march over the bridge, being cautious about the safety of protesters. He lead the group of 2500 back to the church, but was under scrutiny about the lack of action he took directly after the march. That night white protesters were beaten and one white minister from Boston, James Reeb, was murdered by two racist white men. The media is outraged and once again, the news of injustice has spread quickly.
Finally, In the case of Williams v. Wallace ( March 1965), Judge Frank Minis Johnson, Jr. grants the petition to the people to assemble freely, and orders Gov. George Wallace to permit the Selma to Montgomery march to take place, which was organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), (DCVL) and (SNCC). Black protestors crowd and picket near the gate at the White House. Johnson finally bolsters a strong front against Wallace while in a private meeting inquiring, “Oh. Why won’t you let the Niggers vote?” He realizes how inflexible Gov. Wallace has become. Johnson explained that he didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history. After wearing Wallace down with a barrage of talking points and opinions, known as the “The Treatment”, federal troops are allowed to come in to Alabama providing protestors protection for the third march from Selma to Montgomery. A few days, after the meeting with Gov. Wallace, on March 15, 1965, Pres. Johnson introduced a bill to a session in Congress. This bill turned into the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the televised proposal of the Bill, Johnson states “The Negro cause must be our cause, too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.” The third and final march takes place from, March 21 to March 25, starting from Selma and ending at the steps of the capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama.
In the final scenes, protestors come from all around to participate in the March from Selma to Montgomery without upheaval from authorities. A montage is shown of scenes from the film along with original pictures and footage from the original marches. Once King arrives at the steps of the capital of Montgomery, he delivers another unforgettable speech. “How long will it take (for justice to prevail)? How long? Not long.” In closing, there are also brief summaries of what happened to specific persons in the film that played a vital role in the movement. Final scenes and credits are overlayed with the Original Song “Glory”. Overall, the film sheds light on a vital time in the history of our country, by serving as a great reference point, and a critical lens for future generations to rely upon. 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Act of 1965.
The star-studded cast of Selma includes, but limited to: Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr, David Oyewolo, Common, Niecy Nash, Wendell Pierce, Martin Sheen, Giovanni Ribisi, Tim Roth, Tom Wilkinson, and a host of others. Cinematographer Bradford Young captures the landscape beautifully as the marchers walk over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in all three events, specifically on the second march during “Bloody Sunday.”
Ava has to her directing credits “Kinyarwanda (2011), “The Middle of Nowhere “(2012), and “Scandal” TV Series Episodes (2013), and a few other shorts and documentaries. For Selma, she was the first African American woman director nominated for a Golden Globe and a Critics Choice Award. Ava Duvernay and David Oyewolo team up again for an extremely devoted endeavor for “Selma”. The two met in “The Middle of Nowhere” (2012). David’s credits also include the Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Lincoln (2012), The Paperboy (2012), high praise for depicting character Louis Gaines in The Butler (2013), and Interstellar (2014). He was nominated for a Golden Globe, Critics Choice Award, Independent Spirit Award, NAACP Award, and countless others for Best Actor for 2014 for his role in “Selma”. It’s a shame that both DuVernay and Oyewolo were not nominated for 2015 Oscars. Thus far,“Glory” won for Best Original Song for the Golden Globes and the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards. “Selma” is also nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Song at the 87th Academy Awards. “Selma” is produced by Cloud Eight Films, Harpo Films, Plan B Entertainment and distributed by Paramount Pictures.
Selma: Summary and Review
By Okema “Seven” Gunn