Recite the preamble to the United States Constitution. Perhaps a few people still remember it from high school government class. But could you say how many county judges are in the state of Alabama? Then name them? That’s what Oprah Winfrey’s character in the film ‘Selma’ must do before she can register to vote. Like even the most learned citizen would, she fails.
‘Selma’ shows the struggle Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo, “Interstellar”) faced in 1965 to achieve equal voting rights for African-Americans in Alabama. Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth, “United Passions”) pushes against King’s proposals, which drives the reverend to bring the issue up with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, “Good People”). Johnson has his own agenda and refuses King help. King and a group of civil rights activists then try to organize a 54-mile march across Alabama, from Selma to Montgomery, to protest the obstructed voter registration of African-Americans.
The story is based on real characters and events from 50 years ago. But director Ava DuVernay keenly crafts the film in a way that makes the problems characters face seem startlingly contemporary. Free speech through peaceful protest and violence from those in power clash. Harsh scenes of police brutality and hate crimes cut between the tense deliberations between King and Johnson, reminding viewers that equal rights often boil down to interest-based politics.
Oyelowo embodies the late King’s personality with a stoic grace. His determined, sometimes distant visage communicates King’s nonverbal essence. But more impressively, the reverend’s deliberate voice rings pure in Oyelowo, commanding the scene of each speech.
Wilkinson plays a compelling, complex antagonist. Johnson boasts in pushing civil rights legislation, but sticks to his own plans when King pushes for more. The power play between the two characters is a vivid conflict, each trying to assert power and influence over the other. Johnson’s resistance to King shows the politics involved with the Civil Rights Movement. Wilkinson’s portrayal of Johnson reveals the character to be self-conscious at times, adding a personal element to the politics as well.
But Johnson’s self-consciousness also shows a flaw in civil rights reasoning even through today. Many who are concerned about being on the “wrong side” of history want to egoistically avoid being judged for their character, rather than fighting for causes because it is the right thing to do. Wilkinson shows this egoism in Johnson — he seems to choose his causes and legislation based on what people would think of him decades after his presidency. He is courteous toward King in person, but uses racial slurs behind his back. He asks questions and entertains the reverend’s requests in meetings, but the FBI has already bugged and surveilled every aspect of King’s life. He supports King as the leader of civil rights, but only from fear of militant leadership, such as that of Malcolm X. Johnson, then, is an antagonist that reluctantly supports the right things for the wrong reasons.
Other characters from other interest groups get into the mix, and the result is a realistic portrayal of the emotional and political struggles involved with creating change. Activists become burned out, tired and fearful. But King asks them in his triumphant final speech how long they think bigotry could reign over the hearts of the corrupt white men in power.
“How long? Not long,” he assures them.
Yet “Selma” doesn’t leave those words back in 1965, when they were first spoken. The end credits song, “Glory” by Common and John Legend, challenges viewers to do away with the assumption that “not long” means it’s over now. The lyrics relate Civil Rights Movement issues with contemporary issues and leaves viewers with a lasting, relevant impact to remind them that it is not yet over.