Marching toward equality: Ava DuVernay’s powerful ‘Selma’ retells a key episode in the American civil rights movement

February 7, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 7, 2015

Selma, the 2014 film directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Paul Webb, is a moving chronicle of the civil rights struggle in Selma, Ala., in 1965.

The film’s protagonist is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the iconic American and civil rights leader, and the movie’s focus is on his effort to stage a march from Selma to Montgomery. At the time, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were attempting to register blacks to vote, a right theoretically granted them by the Constitution but thwarted in reality by bigoted state and local officials.

The conference chose Selma as the backdrop to their 1965 protests because the Dallas County sheriff, Jim Clark, was a deep-seated bigot and notorious hothead in a state led by Gov. George Wallace, a fervent segregationist. King and other movement leaders believed that law enforcement officials, especially Clark, could be goaded into acts of brutality that would shock the consciences of people around the nation and the world.

King and his lieutenants, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young and Hosea Williams, correctly figured that Clark was similar in temperament to Bull Connor, the Birmingham, Ala., public safety commissioner. Connor had earned widespread condemnation when television stations and newspapers showed his employees using firehoses, dogs and batons in brutal attacks against protesters in 1963. (Director Lee Daniels showed this in his 2013 film, The Butler.)

Some of Selma’s most moving scenes are the ones that show the activists crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge — the first leg of the march, which was a journey that protesters attempted on three separate occasions. These scenes are rivaled in power by the final shots, which show cheering activists assembled before the Alabama state capital as King addresses them.

Throughout, we see King working fiercely to keep his allies unified behind the concept of nonviolent protest. At the same time, he urges a recalcitrant President Lyndon Baines Johnson to support voting rights for black citizens. Johnson is not unsympathetic to King and his cause, if only because he finds the Atlanta preacher preferable to militant activists such as Malcolm X. But Johnson prefers to work on his own priorities — specifically, the war on poverty — and to work at his own pace; he resents being repeatedly pushed and prodded by King.

As King says during a meeting with John Lewis and another leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who are hesitant when King’s group begins working in Selma, the civil rights movement depends on its enemies to make mistakes. That happens repeatedly in Selma.

An Alabama state trooper shoots and kills Jimmie Lee Jackson when he runs and hides with his sister and their elderly father after cops and white residents attack marchers in a night demonstration. The appalling violence during the first attempt to cross the Pettus bridge is documented by a New York Times reporter. Local thugs beat and kill James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister from Boston who has come to participate in the second attempt to march, and who had just been eating in an integrated Selma restaurant, after which Johnson places a condolence call to his widow. (King coolly reminds the president that he did not extend the same courtesy to Jackson’s family.)

And when Johnson invites Wallace to the White House in an attempt to persuade him to display at least a modicum of sympathy toward voting rights reforms, the governor rebuffs him. This rejection firmly places the president in King’s camp, prompting him first to provide law-enforcement and military protection to the marchers and ultimately to introduce the Voting Rights Act.

Even so, federal officials repeatedly urge King to scale back his plans, purportedly for safety reasons. The minister, citing the moral certitude of his cause, regularly declines to compromise in order to protect the corrupt system that has oppressed blacks for hundreds of years.

At Jackson’s funeral, King asks the congregation who was responsible for his death. “Every white lawman who abuses the law to terrorize,” the minister sermonizes. “Every white politician who feeds on prejudice and hatred. Every white preacher who preaches the Bible and stays silent before his white congregation. “Who murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson? Every Negro man and woman who stands by without joining this fight as their brothers and sisters are brutalized, humiliated, and ripped from this Earth.”

King’s strategic triumph is to push the fight for the integration and equality at virtually every opportunity. But King’s tactics of civil resistance, his refusal to resort to violence, are perhaps as vital to the movement’s success as his determination to advance the cause.

Early on, when King first visits Selma and attempts to register to stay in a white-only hotel, a random white man walks up, politely requests to introduce himself to the famed activist and then, without warning, punches King in the face. King falls down; a pair of policemen move to restrain the assailant; King’s aides help him stand; and the antagonists turn away from each other.

That’s the full extent of that encounter. Later, however, Young has to talk down an angry young man who wants to round up some guns and retaliate for the beatings black marchers have taken from the police. Young’s moral righteousness, and the unassailable logic of his assertion that white authorities can easily kill multiple blacks for every cop who is shot, penetrates the young Alabaman’s anger and wins the day.

In fact, in Selma, violence is solely the province of the powerful — either the white-controlled establishment, led by Wallace and Clark, or white vigilantes, such as the men who assault King and who kill Reeb.

Part of Selma’s strength lies in its depiction of vulnerable people fighting for, and winning, rights long unjustly denied them by powerful, wealthy factions of society. Unfortunately, part of it lies in the relevance that the story has, six decades after the historical events that it depicts.

The three white men indicted for Reeb’s murder were acquitted in December 1965. James Bonard Fowler, the state trooper who killed Jackson — who admitted to doing so in a sworn affidavit on the night of the shooting, and who told a reporter in 2005 that he never even received a letter of reprimand for the incident — wasn’t indicted for Jackson’s death until more than 42 years after it occurred. Fowler eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter and served less than six months in prison due to his poor health, even though he was under investigation for the fatal 1966 shooting of a motorist following a traffic stop.

This resonates all too much in today’s America. Last year, a New York City police officer could be seen on publicly available video applying a chokehold in violation of department policies, killing a man who had repeatedly protested that he was unable to breathe. The dead man, Eric Garner, was suspected of no misdeed more serious than illegally selling cigarettes. The officer who killed him, of course, wasn’t indicted by a grand jury. And Garner was just one person on a long list of men and children, often but not always black, who have been killed by police officers — officers who often but not always escape most formal types of punishment.

Of arguably even more importance, in 2013, the Supreme Court held in a 5-4 decision that key portions of the Voting Rights Act were no longer constitutional. The law that King and countless others worked so hard to pass, the law that Johnson decided to shepherd into existence after being subjected to extreme pressure, the law that helped make good on the right to vote that had been denied so many black citizens for so many years, lost a good deal of its power thanks to the court’s ruling in Shelby County vs. Holder. (The plaintiff in the case, it should be noted, is in Alabama.)

Given that Republicans recently won control of both houses of Congress, and that conservatives have enacted a number of measures that voting rights advocates say threaten to limit access to the ballot box, it’s easy to feel as if King’s legacy is under attack.

The one aspect of Selma that I found a bit disappointing was its treatment of King’s infidelity. On at least two occasions, the movie suggests that it’s about to engage with King’s womanizing, only to turn away. Early on, the minister makes a late-night call to a woman, who turns out to be not a lover but gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. (He asks her to sing an inspirational melody.) Then, in Selma, before King turns in for the night an aide notes that “the students” are in town. I thought he might be referring to temptresses, but it turns out the aide is only saying that SNCC activists have been organizing local residents.

The film does deal with King’s adultery directly once, in a tense nighttime conversation between Martin and Coretta. The scene encapsulates the numerous tensions that affect the civil rights leader. He loves, sincerely but imperfectly, his wife and their children, whose lives are threatened both by his life’s work and by his missteps. He forges ahead with his family and his calling, making mistakes, but eventually rallying both his wife and the nation to his side.

The superb cast is led by David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo, who play Martin and Coretta. Under DuVernay’s direction, the ensemble makes Selma into a story that reminds us of an important episode in American history while convincingly portraying the emotions of people whom we mostly know as names in a history book. I think that Selma is a film that will be long remembered by lovers of American history and of powerful cinema.

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