History is a crowded place, littered more often than not with recurrent and egregious examples of man’s inhumanity to man.
But it is also, thankfully, marked by the brave examples of men and women, in great numbers and starkly alone, who, rather than remain complicit in a system that brutalised and made victims of its intended targets, chose to stand up and be counted, to fight for change even if it cost them more than could possibly be counted.
One such upwelling of non violent, strategically-targeted resistance began in the United States in the mid-1950s when a series of social movements rose up to challenge American society’s refusal to grant its black citizens the same civil and political rights routinely enjoyed by its white majority.
One of the leading lights of the Civil Rights Movement was Dr. Martin Luther King, played with quiet but forceful integrity in Selma by David Oyelowo who captures the great man’s sense of presence with vivid authenticity, who as part of his efforts to bring about true equality undertook a series of protests that included public transport boycotts, “sit-ins” in stores and cafes that enforced racial segregation and marches such as the one on March 21, 1965 that form the narrative centrepiece of director Ava DuVernay’s extraordinarily moving film.
With King stood a group of equally devoted men and women, among them the future mayor of Atlanta, Andrew Young (Andre Holland), eventual longterm senator John Lewis (Stephan Lewis), co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson), civil rights leader and ordained minister Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), gifted strategist James Bevel (Common), Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) who came from a family of civil rights activists, and Amelia Boynton Robinson (Lorraine Toussaint), leader of the Civil Rights Movements in Alabama.
With many, though not all of them, grouped in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, they worked, often in concert via Martin Luther-King to give flesh-and-blood, day to day reality to rights, such as the right to vote that though enshrined in law, were often stymied or downright denied in practice by obstructionist white political establishments who saw no need to tinker, for obvious reasons, with the established order.
And it was to Selma, Alabama that many of these people went in March 1965 after determining that the town, just 50 miles from the state capital of Montgomery, was an ideal place to make a stand about the inability of black people to practice their legal right to vote largely because of absurdist obstcales enacted by local officials.
In one scene for instance we witness Annie Lee Copper (Oprah Winfrey) try and fail to enrol to vote at the Selma Courthouse, her attempts to make it onto the voting register foiled by an official who first asks her to recite the preamble to the US Constitution, which she delivers word perfectly, then give the number of county judges in Alabama (67) and finally in the cruellest request of all, to name them.
While this wasn’t necessarily the trigger for the marches in Selma, it was emblematic of the difficulties encountered by local black people and became a rallying point for a march planned from Selma to Montgomery which almost didn’t successfully come to pass after Alabama state troopers and a grouping of Dallas County citizens attacked its first incarnation on March 7, taking to the peaceful, arm-in-arm protestors as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge out of Selma with whips, truncheons, tear gas and cattle prods.
Bloody but undeterred, they regrouped, sending out a rallying cry across the country via the media that had closely monitored and depicted the shocking events of the first march for supporters to come and join them.
Bolstered by additional black and white supporters, many of them white, from as far away as Boston, and watched from afar by President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), with whom King met often, eventually introducing the Voting Rights Act in response to the actions of the demonstrators – his depiction in the film has met with some controversy with assertions that he was not as obstructionist a figure as Paul Webb’s finely-tuned and paced script paints him – the march finally took place, after another false start, on March 21, 1965.
What makes DuVernay’s portrayal of these events so powerful is that she and Webb are not afraid to depict the schisms and struggles for power and ideas that characterised the Civil Rights Movements that accompanied these momentous points.
Nor does it shy away from making it clear that King, a man of great vision and charisma and impatience (a virtue given what he was fighting for and against), had his flaws, among them his sexual dalliances.
These strained his marriage to the remarkably calm and poised Coretta Scott-King (Carmen Ejogo) and gave the FBI, led by a rather one-note Edgar J Hoover (Dylan Baker), who monitored King’s every move – their tracking notes are typed up on the screen from time to time to give a sense of time and place – an opportunity, they believed, to weaken his resolve by exploiting the fractures in his marriage.
Nor were the interactions of King’s group and local organisations, in this case, Selma’s local chapter of the Student Nonviolent Organising Committee, or wider federal groupings such as Malcolm X’s more militant followers, always collegial and mutually supportive.
By placing the events of Selma in their proper historical context, and making it clear it was not an endlessly harmonious road to greater equality, either within or without the movement – the opposition from Alabama’s pragmatically-racist Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) is fiercely antagonistic for instance – the achievements of the activists in Selma, and by extension, those across the United States, are amplified all the more powerfully.
Selma is a remarkable film, crowned by its intensely-uplifting Oscar-nominated closing song “Glory”, which though its narrative lags at times sapping some of its dramatic tension, nonetheless beautifully portrays with raw emotion and singularity of purpose what these pioneers of the Civil Rights Movements had to contend with and what they achieved even so.
Reminding us in the process of their great work that the price of freedom and equality is the sort of eternal vigilance and resolve these first activists had in considerable quantity and which continues to inspire their present day counterparts for whom the struggle for complete equality, as underlined by recent events in Ferguson and Cleveland, is not yet sadly over.