“Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.” This is but one of the many, many words of wisdom spoken by civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., who, like Mahatma Gandhi before him, came to regard nonviolent resistance as the only way to combat the very laws, behaviors, and beliefs founded on prejudice and bigotry. We see King practicing what he preaches in Selma, a new film that dramatizes the events leading up to his 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
But we also see how difficult it can be, for King and his followers, to live up to such high standards; no matter how hard they push back, no matter what steps they take, it always appears that no progress towards racial equality has been made. Nearly fifty years after King’s assassination, it can be argued that it still appears this way.
One of the filmmakers’ more admirable approaches was to not overly glorify the characters. Yes, we see King, played with Oscar-worthiness by David Oyelowo, as the public saw him – a passionate, eloquent oratorian – but we also see him in quiet, private moments in which he doubts the effectiveness of his approach and is deeply frustrated by the slow pace of the Civil Rights Movements and the resistance of those who are in a position to help speed things along. At times, we see him behaving like a politician, calculating when it would be best to say something along with where and how it should be said. In a daring move, the filmmakers use one scene to subtly yet unmistakably address the likelihood that King had been repeatedly unfaithful to his wife, Coretta. This was not to be sensationalistic, but merely to reinforce the reality that King, though undeniably remarkable, was only human.
We see President Lyndon Johnson, here played by Tom Wilkinson, passing the Voting Rights Act, which officially made racial discrimination in voting illegal. However, he does this only after a long period of reticence and stonewalling, the already-legislated Civil Rights Act pressing his luck as it was with certain southern congressmen he needed for support. We’re also reminded that, in spite of his progressive views on the rights of African Americans, and in spite of the laws he passed seeing to it that those rights be recognized, he was born and raised in Texas in the early twentieth century, and as such the N word was indeed part of his vocabulary, at least privately. We even see that he authorized J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to continue his surveillance of King, the wiretapping of his home having been approved several years earlier by Robert Kennedy – albeit not to the extent Hoover ended up taking it.
The film’s only character to lack subtlety is George Wallace (Tim Roth), which is fitting since the real Wallace, who served as the Governor of Alabama, was decidedly unsubtle in his segregationist beliefs during the 1960s (utterly baffling, given his then affiliation with the Democratic Party). For we who sat in the screening room on the Paramount Pictures lot, Roth’s performance was so effortlessly convincing that we couldn’t help but laugh – not hysterically, but very much audibly. It’s not that we thought either the real Wallace or his big-screen dramatization funny; the man was such a populist puppet that all he could do was echo the ignorance of the racist white majority of Alabama voters, inspiring him to say things that were utterly ridiculous. We laughed, quite simply, out of incredulity.
The filmmakers were also wise to not overly glorify the march itself. Of course we see very dramatic moments in which protesters, both black and white, getting brutally assaulted, either by law enforcement or by bigoted vigilantes. We expect to see this because it did actually happen. Not quite so expected is the amount of time devoted to planning the march – the discussions, the infighting, the varying positions on the best way to achieve racial equality, the personal setbacks, the uncertainty, the fear, the courses of action that some would regard as level-headed while others would regard as cowardly. Some audiences may find the backstage portions of the film slow-paced. I think this approach was refreshingly introspective and allowed for greater character development. If there’s one thing that can ruin a biopic, it’s forcing its subjects to pander to an audience’s expectations.
Oprah Winfrey, one of the film’s several producers, has been cast in the small but significant supporting role of civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper, who in 1965 was arrested for punching a Selma sheriff named Jim Clark after he prodded her neck with a billy club, refusing to let her register to vote. The film dramatizes this incident by having it happen during one of King’s group protests and in defense of an elderly man being harassed by local cops. However satisfying such an act of defiance would seem in the moment, we’re painfully aware that, at that particular time in America, her actions would have severe consequences. One of the best scenes of Selma features Cooper alone at a local courthouse, attempting to become a registered voter. The county clerk asks a series of questions that would never be asked of any white applicant, including reciting the preamble to the Constitution and numbering and naming all sixty-seven of Alabama’s district court judges. Having to name them throws her off, and her application is rejected. If there was ever a scene that perfectly exemplified racism, this would be it.