Timely Civil Rights Saga Revisits Historic Martin Luther King March
Selma is the story of a movement, a chronicle of a three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the revered Civil Rights leader and visionary, led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights for all, in the face of violent opposition.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 legally desegregated the South, but that did not stop the discrimination, mainly against blacks, and it was still violently rampant in some areas. This made it very difficult for blacks to register to vote.
The campaign led to an epic march in Alabama, from Selma to Montgomery, that culminated in President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant victories for the civil rights movement.
Director Ava DuVernay’s Selma tells the real story of how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., played by David Oyelowo, and his brothers and sisters in the movement, prompted change that forever altered history.
I was born in the early Fifties, and the Civil Rights Movement unfolded throughout my formative years. And like the average black kid growing up in that tumultuous era, I can distinctly recall having a very visceral reaction to the nightly news coverage, since I had such a personal stake in the outcome of the events.
One of the most consequential flashpoints in memory was when a trio of voting rights marches were staged in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Launched by locals with the help of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the first demonstration came to be known as Bloody Sunday because of the way the police viciously attacked the 500+ participants with teargas and billy clubs. The attacks on the protesters came at the direction of a racist Sheriff named Jim Clark, played here by Stan Houston.
Media coverage of the event was shocking, and it garnered the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) who agreed to become involved. They had been prevented from crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and after an aborted second attempt, the controversy expanded into a nationwide cause celebre. 25,000 people willing to risk their lives and limbs descended upon tiny Selma, which then had a population of around 28,500, around 80% of whom were black. The people who came to Selma included cultural icons such as Harry Belafonte, Nina Simone, Joan Baez, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Peter, Paul and Mary.
Three times proved a charm as the third march went off without a hitch, although participant Viola Liuzzo (Tara Ochs), a mother of five from Detroit, was murdered by a quartet of cowardly Ku Klux Klansmen just a few hours later. A couple of other martyrs also made the ultimate sacrifice in Selma, Jimmie Lee Jackson, played by Keith Stanfield, and Reverend James Reeb, played by Jeremy Strong. Fortunately, none of them died in vain because, in August, President Johnson, here played by Tom Wilkinson, signed historic voting rights legislation into law.
All of the above has been evocatively reenacted in Selma, a gut-wrenching civil rights saga directed by Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere). The picture’s release has proven to be oh so timely, given the resurgence of political activism all across the U.S. in the wake of the failure of grand juries to indict the police officers for the recent deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
Believe it or not, this moving biopic is the first, full-length feature ever made revolving around Dr. Martin Luther King. That oversight is only apt to further enhance the film’s stock value when it goes wide in theaters right before Dr. King’s birthday and the eagerly-anticipated awards season.
An overdue tribute to a revered icon and to some unsung foot soldiers who played a critical role at a seminal moment in the courageous African-American struggle for freedom and equality.
Excellent (4 stars)
Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, and brief profanity
Running time: 127 minutes
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Watch the Selma trailer: