March on Montgomery transcends decades
A bomb obliterates the staircase of a church building, and five young girls die in heap of splintered wood and with the wail of their mothers. Targeted because of the color of their skin, these young innocent children suffered a death similar to many before them; a death inspired by racial bigotry and hate. Prejudices against African Americans have existed since the creation of this powerful nation. However, what happened in a small town in the black belt of southern Alabama during 1965 would change the outlook of an entire race. Selma, a historically accurate, emotionally powerful, and socially conscious film directed by Ava DuVernay (Spider-Man 2), depicts the struggles of Dr. Martin Luther King jr. (David Oyelowo, Interstellar) and his non-violent disciples during their battle to remove restrictions that prohibited African Americans from exercising the vote, centering on the struggle in the town of Selma. By blending the brutal reality of the fervent racial chauvinism apparent within American culture during the 1960s with King’s inspirational passion, DuVernay creates a truly complete illustration of a pivotal American juncture.
In real life, as well as in the film, which adheres fairly strictly to a strong historical grounding, King demanded the attention of the nation with his work in Selma, a small town of several thousand, by marching and demonstrating in order to gain for African Americans what should have already been theirs: basic civil liberties. His nonviolent demonstrations enraged malicious local police, which lead to several front page pictures depicting the beating and slaughter of African Americans supplemented with stories of police brutality and abuses. King’s peaceful protest thereby brought violence against the Black Community and did enough to win the sympathy of the 70 million onlookers that watched the debacle unfold in the depths of Alabama. By awakening the nation’s moral consciousness with scenes of such horror, King was then able to lead more than 2000 demonstrators from Selma to Montgomery in a march which demanded equality. Fifty-four miles were marched in five days, but this slow march was symbolic of a much faster one, as never before had the nation progressed so much, in such a short span of time.
The honest portrayal of the chromatic divide between people of color and the white majority is addressed in the film in a piercing matter-of-fact manner. The distinct instances of struggle were not cinematically abused in an attempt to make Hollywood Gold; rather, they were directed and casted with specific consideration of the historical event. DeVernay did not design the movie, history did; she merely recreated it in an honest and authentic fashion - for she knew that the most captivating story was the real one - the one that transpired in 1965 between Selma and Montgomery.
DeVernay also near-flawlessly captures the true nature of the moment in history, as rather than depicting the strong and unflinching Martin Luther King Jr. which folklore and hero worship has given modern America, she portrays a man who is a representation of a tense movement; scared, unsure of his fate, and often reflective, but never wavering in his dedication to equality. In doing so, she is able to galvanize within audiences a deep respect for the actions of King and others who worked with him. Such people were not fearless, but rather terrified for their own lives as well as the lives of their families, and the accurate depiction of this in Selma serves only to foster an even deeper reverence for King’s work in those who view the film.
Not merely a historical documentary, the film also serves to bring King’s message of love to a new generation, as filmmaking decisions are made throughout which point to a very applicable modern message. In one scene which shows King in jail speaking with one of his closest advisors, the great orator wonders aloud when it will ever stop, longing for a rest. He finally concludes that he cannot cease his efforts until true equality, and an America reminiscent of the one pictured in his famous “I have a Dream” speech, is achieved.
Other dialogue is seen throughout the film which points to a modern need to maintain and further King’s work, but perhaps the most interesting choice the film makes in modernizing its message is in the ending scenes, where an original song entitled Glory, written by African-American songwriter John Legend and rapper Common, is juxtaposed with the combination of images from the movie and real historical pictures. The choice of song as a medium is itself interesting because the rhythm and soul of gospel music is intertwined with poetic rap and creatively reflects African American culture. Glory’s lyrics identify that the same struggle which King encountered is alive and well today with verses: “That’s why Rosa sat on the bus / That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up.” By drawing parallels between the setting of the film and modern America, it suggests that the same fight which Dr. King fought is not over and must be carried on.
Recreating a well publicized event in history was no small task for DeVernay and the cast had tremendous shoes to fill; that of numerous world leaders and timeless symbols of progress. Oyelowo, especially, was trusted to mimic the Great Orator and deserves a commendable standing ovation for his impeccable performance. Generations of African Americans hold King’s crusade for civil liberty very close to their hearts. He was a martyr and Oyelowo could not have paid him more respect with his performance. Selma is a complete film; reaching far below the surface of our superficial and pop-culture crazed existence and appealing to our core values, demanding respect. The film is uncomfortable to watch, in such a way that we feel for those that have come before us and are ashamed of many racial aspects of American history. Selma succeeds both cinematically and thematically and is nominated for the best picture award at the 87th academy awards on February 22nd, 2015. It should not be overlooked.
For more information regarding Martin Luther King Jr. and his efforts in Selma, visit History.com.
For more information on Black History Month, visit History.net.