‘Selma’ Showcases Civil Rights Struggles
Jimmy Kemper | Monday, March 23, 2015
This past weekend, the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center screened “Selma,” one of the Best Picture nominees at the recent Oscars and now one of my favorite films of 2014.
“Selma” had me hooked from its opening sequence. The biopic begins in 1964 with Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) in a hotel room, preparing to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and talking with his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo). The entire scene focuses on whether King should wear an ascot or not because he’s afraid of how he would perceived by his friends back home. Coretta can’t help but be amused, and we encounter one of the few light moments that exist in this intimate relationship that struggles with the difficulties of King’s position as a civil rights leader.
After a brief look at King’s Nobel acceptance speech, the film quickly shifts to a couple of young black girls dressed in their Sunday best, walking down the stairs of a church and discussing the best way to straighten their hair. In an instant, a tremendous explosion overwhelms the screen, which we witness in slow motion as one of the girls’ beautiful, patent leather heel flies across, set to a wonderful musical score. We are left with the lifeless body of one of the girls, still in her Sunday best, lying among the rubble of the church. Between this tragic event and King’s acceptance speech, director Ava DuVernay immediately shows the audience that the film, and the Civil Rights movement, for that matter, are about restoring human dignity to all Americans.
After this powerful opening, “Selma” then continues to follow the narrative of King and other civil rights leaders as they work toward ensuring voting rights for black Americans through a series of peaceful marches from Selma, Alabama, to the state’s capital, Montgomery.
Rather than just creating a propaganda piece of King for the modern American, “Selma” really dives into the character of King, creating a complete portrait of the man during this struggle that fully embraces both his strengths and his flaws. Much like Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” “Selma” focuses on the back-room politics and struggles rather than the speeches we’re all too familiar with. In addition to creating a fresh look at King, viewers are exposed to his personal struggles, his marriage struggles and his conflict with other civil rights leaders. At one point, Coretta encounters wiretaps from the FBI that prove her husband is cheating on her. He initially lies to her about it but is forced to admit to his betrayal. Scenes like this emphasize that, although Martin Luther King Jr. was a great and inspirational civil rights leader, he was a human just like the rest of us, with his own failures and complications.
This movie also shines in its unflinching approach to the brutality and violence that characterized the Civil Rights Era. From the church bombing in the opening sequence forward, “Selma” emphasizes that the path to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was paved with the blood of brave Americans, both black and white. In one of the darkest scenes in an already very dark movie, white supremacists beat Unitarian Universalist pastor James Reeb to death in the streets of Selma. In another, Selma police brutalize black protesters as they march through the street at night and kill civil rights leader Jimmie Lee Jackson in front of his family at the restaurant they hide in. Throughout all these violent scenes, though, DuVernay chose to keep the violence as bloodless as possible, keeping the focus off the gore, which actually enhances the impact that every single punch has behind it.
In a year in which police brutality and racial tensions dominated news headlines, films like “Selma” serve as important reminders of the progress we’ve made as a nation toward ensuring the human dignity of all our citizens while simultaneously providing a point of comparison for the wrongs that we still need to stand up and confront, as Martin Luther King Jr. once did.