This film is set in 1965. Dr. Martin Luther King, portrayed in a strong Oscar-worthy performance by David Oyelowo, has just received the Nobel Peace Prize. He brings his Southern Christian Leadership Conference organization (SCLC) to Selma, Alabama to address the fact that only 1% of the African Americans in the county are registered to vote. Early in the film we see Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) attempt to register to vote, only to again be unfairly denied by the clerk. We hear that Dr. King chose Selma because of the racist Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston). King’s plan is to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, but Clark has plans to stop the march, using violence if necessary.
The film portrays Dr. King not only as a powerful leader and speaker, but also someone who had fears, doubts and flaws. His marital infidelity is addressed in a powerful scene with wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) and we see and feel the tension between the two after that. Ejogo’s performance is excellent as she deals with the infidelity, the constant threats and harassment that come via phone calls and having to raise their four children as Dr. King is often away from home to deal with the situation in Selma.
The film revolves around the march from Selma to Montgomery, and specifically what is known as “Bloody Sunday” on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, which is effectively narrated by a journalist as he is calling in the story to his newspaper. Particularly in this scene, but also in others, we see and almost feel the brutal violence as Clark’s men beat the marchers resulting in the death of two. The violence is reported in the nation’s newspapers and broadcast to 70 million people on television, much to the chagrin of President Lyndon Johnson.
I particularly enjoyed the scenes featuring conversations between Dr. King and President Johnson, portrayed by Tom Wilkinson, an excellent actor. Johnson tells Dr. King that he is not going to address the voting issue in the South, even though African Americans had the legal right to vote, because he has other priorities. But King can’t wait on Johnson.
Throughout the film, Dr. King’s strong faith is portrayed – in church, a moving jail cell scene in which he is encouraged by a member of his team, in a late night phone call to singer Mahalia Jackson, played by Ledisi Young, who King asks to sing a gospel song to him, etc.
The film is directed by Ava DuVernay, and features a number of excellent performances. In addition to those already mentioned, worth mentioning are:
- Andre Holland as Andrew Young
- Colman Domingo as Rev. Ralph Abernathy
- Common as James Bevel
- Tessa Thompson as Diane Nash
- Cuba Gooding Jr. as attorney Fred Gray
- Niecy Nash as the host who invites King and his team into her home for breakfast in a joyous scene
- Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover
- Tim Roth as Alabama’s racist Governor George Wallace
- Nigel Thatch as Malcolm X
King’s march resulted in President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant victories for the civil rights movement.
At times the film does drag a bit, and at 128 minutes could have been edited down a bit. There is also some adult language, racial slurs and several abuses of God’s and Jesus’ names. Overall however, this is an important film, and one that I recommend all adults and mature teens see, not only from a historical perspective, but also in light of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City.