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Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015 12:01 am

Selma: A reminder of sacrifice and struggle

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King in Selma.


In life, and with releasing films, timing is everything and Ava DuVernay’s Selma could not have opened at a more opportune moment. Obviously set to coincide with the 86th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth, the producers of the film couldn’t have been prescient enough to know that it would also be screened during a period of volatile national unrest due to multiple acts of racially charged violence. This plays to the movie’s advantage in numerous ways as it serves as a moving reminder of the sacrifices made by those at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement but also as a cautionary tale for the nation, providing a powerful warning to all Americans regarding the dire consequences if we continue down a destructive path.

Very few feature films have examined the Civil Rights Movement and its leaders with the prospect of poor box office returns being the roadblock in getting them produced. However, with a trim budget of $20 million and 11 different people – including Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt – serving in various producing capacities, the financial risk surrounding the movie is minimal, allowing DuVernay to take risks and present the historical events at the film’s center with a degree of historical accuracy that’s rare for productions of this sort.

The most refreshing thing is in the movie’s portrayal of King. As brought to life through an exceptional performance by David Oyelowo, we get a warts-and-all view of a man with noble intentions and unwavering dedication to his cause yet also feet of clay as he’s seen making key mistakes during the push to gain equal voting rights for all, while the film touches upon his rumored infidelities as well. Yet, this does not diminish the man but makes him all the more heroic as we see him question the price of all he’s sacrificing for this cause while he struggles with the specter of violence that hangs over him and his family.

And while we focus on King because of his prominence in history, his directing of these events and Oyelowo’s captivating turn, there’s no question that the film is entitled Selma for a reason. The fly-on-the-wall manner in which DuVernay presents conversations between King and his advisors as they discuss, argue over and finally agree on a strategy to press for voting rights in Dallas County has a credible ring to them. However, the accuracy of the leader’s meetings with President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) have come under fire for being altered for dramatic purposes with King implacable in the face of the leader’s stubborn demeanor and shortsighted policy.

Despite this, the result is an uncommonly intimate look at historical events that shaped an era. We witness the slow progress made by King and his followers as their efforts led to the symbolic march from Selma to Montgomery that called attention to their cause, leading to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. One of its most effective moments comes early on when we see Annie Lee Cooper (Winfrey in an effective, low-key performance) denied the right to vote after being asked to answer a series of impossible questions. The quiet, matter-of-fact manner in which this scene is presented underscores the commonality of such events as well as their devastating personal impact.

While most historical dramas struggle with the onus of lacking relevance, Selma deals with events that, in a sense, are still unfolding. This is a vital film, one that’s necessary viewing for all. It’s a powerful reminder of the sacrifice made by those who fought for rights that so many take for granted and is a testament to those who sacrificed so much to ensure that future generations would be treated with basic human dignity.  

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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