Selma chronicles the three-month period in 1965, when Martin Luther King led a campaign for equal voting rights. Review by Sean Ledwith
Ava DuVernay’s new film Selma has been made to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights march in the eponymous US city. Spearheaded by Martin Luther King, the protest played a key role in breaking down the system of Jim Crow segregation that dominated the southern states of the US in the first half of the twentieth century.
Many viewers of the film, however, will inevitably reflect that the movie expresses just as powerfully the anger and alienation felt by black Americans in this century. Watching the depiction of racist US cops and politicians brutalising demonstrators in 1965, it is impossible not to be reminded of not dissimilar scenes on television reports of the Ferguson uprising last year.
Episodes in the movie show the murder of civil rights activists by rogue policemen that are disturbingly reminiscent of the recent coverage of the killings of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and other black males.
The overall effect of the movie is double-edged: on the one hand, it provides inspiring examples of resistance from below in the face of apparently invincible state power; but at the same time, it is a sobering reminder that the gains of the heroic era of black liberation in the US have been steadily eroded by a renewed ruling class offensive
The film is reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s 2013 biopic Lincoln in that it focuses on a short but crucial episode in the life of a key figure in the history of African American struggle. There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach to historical reconstruction. On the plus side, the viewer is immersed in the rapid twists and turns of a crucial conjuncture in which decisions by a small group under pressure often have seismic consequences. The disadvantages are that the viewer is denied the contextualisation of an episode which allows her to make sense of the origins of a crisis and also there is no sense of how the consciousness of key characters has been transformed over time.
Selma does not provide the viewer with any understanding of how MLK rose to prominence in the mid 1950s due to his mobilisation of the bus boycott in Alabama. Nor does it suggest that at the point the film opens, the non-violence espoused by his organisation, the Southern Christian Leadership Council, was coming under sustained criticism by a more radical direct action grouping, known as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
Despite this lack of context, the film opens with powerful and shockingly effective scenes depicting the contrasting emotions of King’s collection of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and the killing of four black schoolgirls in a church bombing by white supremacists. The former was symbolic of the acceptance of the civil rights leadership by the upper echelons of the US elite, whereas the latter event tragically illustrated the incompleteness of the first phase of King's attempts to take on the apparatus of systemic racism.
The film deploys reasonable poetic licence here as these two events were not actually contemporaneous, but as a device for setting the scene for the future confrontation at Selma, it is a dramatically effective opening.
One of the strengths of this movie over Spielberg's Lincoln is that black Americans are portrayed as the agents of their own emancipation, not as grateful onlookers to the deeds of benevolent white politicians, Oprah Winfrey plays real-life civil rights activist, Annie Lee Cooper, whose attempts to register to vote in Selma are thwarted by the malicious demands of the white registrar, who not only expects her to state the number of county judges (67) but also to name them!
The scene powerfully conveys how the 14th and 15th amendments of the US Constitution that had been introduced after the Civil War to provide political rights for black Americans had been hollowed out and invalidated by racist politicians in the South. Subsequent scenes show Cooper refusing to be cowed by this intimidation and becoming one of the stalwarts of the Selma campaign.
MLK's response to the ongoing denial of democratic rights in the South is to appeal to President Lyndon Johnson in the White House to accelerate legislation to suppress electoral racism. The depiction of the relationship between MLK and LBJ has been the most controversial aspect of the film in the US, with key advisers of the latter contending his largely unsympathetic portrayal is unfair and that, in fact, the President was a driving force behind the Selma protests!
The Good President?
This attack on the film represents a specious attempt by the hierarchy of the modern Democratic Party to claim credit for the achievements of the civil rights era and to downplay the role of grassroots activists in both the SCLC and the SNCC. Johnson looks to some today as a relatively progressive figure in US terms as we are aware that he would be followed by calamitous Presidents such as Nixon and Reagan. However, Johnson was responsible more than any other American politician for the horrors of the Vietnam War and his attempts to marginalise the civil rights movement are well documented.
LBJ and the Democrats in this era were heavily dependent on the support of voters in the South who approved of the Jim Crow system that was denying Annie Lee Cooper and millions of other black Americans basic political rights. Johnson’s reluctance to accelerate the process of reform, effectively depicted in the film, was founded on a cynical electoral calculation that it could cost the Democrats control of the Southern states.
The year before the events in Selma, LBJ had conspired to prevent a predominantly black delegation from attending the Democrat convention in Atlantic City, in fear it might alarm his racist supporters in the South, known as Dixiecrats. When the delegation tried to attend anyway, he arranged for them to be forcibly removed by security staff.
The conversations between King and Johnson in the film may be fictional reconstructions, but they validly reflect a political disconnect between an activist campaigner and a venal capitalist politician seeking to divert popular resistance. Modern Democrat apologists are embarrassed by this awkward aspect of the party’s recent history and have attacked the film as part of their attempt to whitewash the party's collaboration with racism in the past.
The unflattering portrayal of a Democrat icon may be one of the reasons for the film's surprising failure to catch the eye of the Oscar judges. Another reason may be the curious fact the four key roles in the film (MLK and his wife, LBJ and Governor George Wallace) are all played by British actors!
Democratic Party apologists will also be embarrassed by scenes depicting the President’s collusion with FBI Director, J Edgar Hoover, in phone tapping operations designed to undermine King’s personal life. Hoover represented one of the most poisonous elements of reactionary state power in the US at the time and, if anything, the extent of his malevolent operations is underplayed in the film. Defenders of Johnson may more justifiably feel hard done by regarding these scenes as it was JFK, his predecessor, who was more responsible for unleashing the FBI on King in an insidious attempt to drive him to suicide.
Martin and Malcolm
King is next seen journeying south to Selma to take on the undisguised racism of the state of Alabama. David Oyelowo delivers a remarkable performance in the lead role and comes as close as perhaps any actor can to reproducing the charisma and oratorical power that King undoubtedly possessed.
Unfortunately his formidable task was not helped by the absurd refusal of MLK’s family to authorise the use of his actual speeches in the film due to a squalid dispute over copyright. As a consequence, director Ava DuVernay had to write her own versions of speeches King might have made; remarkably they have the tone of authenticity and are powerfully delivered by Oyelowo. The film is worth seeing for these sections alone.
The film is also to be commended for avoiding a hagiographic portrayal of King. Malcolm X, his principal rival for ideological hegemony of the civil rights movement, is depicted - albeit briefly - in a sympathetic manner and with an awareness he was undergoing a process of political transformation, leading him away from black nationalism and towards an understanding of the role of class in American capitalism.
Malcolm is shown expounding a critique of King’s strategy of non-violence that was becoming increasingly influential in the civil rights movement by the mid-1960s. King is also shown coming under political attack from militants in the SNCC, as they too become exasperated by his faith in establishment politicians like Johnson.
Inevitably for a mainstream Hollywood movie,Selma depicts MLK ultimately winning the debate with more radical factions but at least the film shows him being subjected to criticism from his own rank and file. The scenes in which the protesters are engaged in fierce discussion of strategy and tactics are another of the highlights of the movie.
The dramatic climax of the film is the savage attack by Alabama police on demonstrators as they attempt to cross Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on their way to the state capital of Montgomery. The bridge-shamefully named after a Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard-was the scene of one the most iconic moments of the civil rights campaign and a turning point in the SCLC’s plan to win over US public opinion.
Black and white images of the historical event have become emblematic of the courage and defiance displayed by anti-racists activists in the face of raw police brutality. DuVernay's film brings those images to life by plunging the viewer straight into the visceral terror of a frontal cavalry charge by Alabama mounted troopers, armed with whips and batons wrapped in barbed wire.
The marchers are indiscriminately attacked, regardless of age, gender or colour. The shocking scenes televised around the US forced Johnson to act and fast-track the Voting Rights Act through Congress. The film concludes on a triumphant note for King and his followers as they heroically march into Montgomery, ignoring the taunts of Southern racists on the sidelines waving the Confederate flag.
No viewer with a radical bone in her body could fail to be uplifted by Selma. However, it is unfortunate Wendy chose not to make a movie about the next few years in MLK's life after the march on Montgomery as they are arguably more interesting and relevant to our times.
Radicalised both by the ongoing trauma of the Vietnam War and his attempts to campaign in the ghettos of the North, King was clearly on a leftward trajectory in the period before his assassination in 1968. Like Malcolm X before him, he was becoming increasingly aware of how the degradation of African Americans was explicable in terms of the exploitative nature of US capitalism.
The reason he was in Memphis for the last campaign of his life was to raise support for striking sanitation workers. King was also a few weeks away from a second March on Washington, potentially more subversive than the iconic event of 1963, with a radical class agenda of a People's March. One year after the Selma campaign he gave a speech indicating his developing class consciousness:
'[W]e are saying that something is wrong ... with capitalism.... There must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism. Call it what you may, call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God's children'
From Selma to Ferguson
With tragic irony, the Voting Rights Act that motivated the heroes of Edmund Pettus Bridge was seriously compromised two years ago when the US Supreme Court voted to remove its provisions requiring states with a record of electoral racism from amending their procedures without federal supervision. John Lewis, a former SNCC activist and current Congressman featured in Selma, denounced the decision:
'These men never stood in unmovable lines. They were never denied the right to participate in the democratic process. They were never beaten, jailed, run off their farms or fired from their jobs. No one they knew died simply trying to register to vote.'
The court's decision is just one of too many examples that the scourge of racism is far from defeated in the US, despite the heroism of King and many others. The film, perhaps wisely, does not explicitly remind the viewer of the parallels between the struggles of black Americans in 1960s and today. Only in the closing credits is the connection made between different generations of resistance, through the lyrics of the soundtrack written by John Legend:
That's why Rosa sat on the bus
That's why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up
When it go down we woman and man up
They say, "Stay down", and we stand up
Shots, we on the ground, the camera panned up
King pointed to the mountain top and we ran up