Martin Luther King’s legacy will always be the “I Have a Dream” Speech. It’s a crowning moment in history with iconic images and soaring rhetoric. But Doctor King was far more than that. He was a minister, a social activist, and a champion of equality, justice, and peace. Selma is the film his story deserves, taking a magnifying glass to the events surrounding the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama which led President Lyndon B. Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
So much had already happened. We had Rosa Parks, Sit-ins, Freedom Riders, Malcolm X, the march on Washington, the assassination of President Kennedy and of course the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the upcoming years, there would be the further escalation of the war in Vietnam, riots in Watts, The Black Panther Party and the assassinations of both Robert Kennedy and Dr. King in 1968. The social unrest was far from over, just like it is not over now. That’s part of what makes Selma so poignant because it is certainly a necessary historical reminder and its relevance remains evident today.
Honestly, the film at times felt rough around the edges and not always the most aesthetically pleasing. For lack of a better word, it felt choppy. That was only a personal observation and not something to get too hung up on though. After all, at its core, Selma is about the characters and the moment of history they were living in. There were some spectacular performances starting with Englishman David Oyelowo as Doctor King himself. He exudes the quiet strength and displays the deliberate but powerful voice that made King the champion of all that was good and right. He is not a perfect man or perfect husband, but he was a man of God who remained true to his convictions and his friends and family.
Ever since I did some reading up on him, LBJ has always been a fascinating character to me, because he was the ultimate politician who was able to accomplish so much and yet he will always have a tarnished legacy due to Vietnam. He is played impeccably by Tom Wilkinson with the imposing figure, southern drawl, and strong will all there. LBJ is at odds with King on occasion and in him you can see a man with a job that no person would desire, trying to make political decisions that no one would want to. Somehow, through it all, the Voting Rights Act was still passed. Then, of course, you have other players like the living legend and present congressman John Lewis as well as Southern Governor and primary villain George Wallace, who seemingly turned his life around in his later years.
Even down to the smallest roles, Selma has power. We begin to see depictions of real-life individuals who lived in a world of fear and disempowerment. Where southern whites ruled with their racist ways and blacks looked for a much-needed answer to the death and suffering. Doctor King was able to lead the movement and yet he had help from friends and the common man as well — black and white. It is interesting how many of the figures who ultimately answered King’s stirring call to action were often pastors, priests, and other clergymen. It’s as if they realized that this was not just a race issue, it was a moral issue, an issue of justice, and ultimately a personal conviction. How could they live hypocritical lives of the status quo while so much was left to be healed in the South? We could ask the same questions of our society now.
The film interestingly enough led many songs to float through my head. There’s Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” Bob Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” Dion’s “Abraham, Martin, John” and Barry Maguire’s “Eve of Destruction” to name a few fitting tunes. For that matter, even the award winning anthem “Glory” could have been played during the film and that would have made sense. And yet Selma finds its sound in more traditional tunes that lend a true authenticity to the story that is surprisingly effective.
To say that Selma really resonated is a given. The images of force and brutality, bitter prejudice, billy clubs, and tear gas are still disturbing. They should be and they should never fail to outrage us. But I think there were several times where I was really struck with the weight of all of this. The first being when King kneeled down to pray and all the masses joined him. Such a display was so visceral and moving. Also, the archive footage showing the final march was a cheering reminder that equality and change by peaceful means are possible. Dr. Martin Luther King sadly did not make it to the Promise Land, but he led the United States and his people ever closer. For that, we all owe him an incredible debt of gratitude and for that very reason, we must never forget Selma.