Selma, and the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Selma, and the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.


selmaSpoiler alert: Selma, in theaters now, ends on a high note, with Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the State Capitol in Birmingham, Ala., marking the end of a campaign that pushed Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But the film, written by Paul Webb, directed by Ava DuVernay and starring David Oyelowo, doesn’t gloss over the obvious: that it’s been 50 years since Selma, since the Voting Rights Act, and much work in the name and realm of civil rights remains to be done.

The telling of the MLK story is well-done by Webb and DuVernay in focusing on the 1965 Selma campaign, into which King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference came on the heels of the success of the signing into law of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The narrative has King and tight-knit circles of civil-rights leaders still trying to process the lessons of an earlier failure in Albany, Ga., from which the movement withdrew in 1962 after a nine-month campaign that was in many respects a disaster.

The movie begins with King in Norway accepting the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, then meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson to try to press LBJ to back voting-rights legislation as a final, important piece in the puzzle toward racial equality.

There has been some criticism over how Johnson has been portrayed relative to the voting-rights push in Selma, as at best a reluctant warrior who wanted to wait, with his focus being his War on Poverty, but this is basically nothing more than a well-intentioned attempt at historical revisionism. Johnson had expended a great deal of political capital in securing passage of the Civil Rights Act a year earlier, and in addition to his War on Poverty had the albatross that was Vietnam weighing him down.

Which takes us to Selma, where we see additional tensions between the old guard in the SCLC and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, whose younger-generation leaders (John Lewis, played by Stephan James, and James Forman, played by Trai Byers) chafe at the presence of King on the ground in Selma, where SNCC had been working for the past couple of years to register local blacks to vote, with some small amount of success.

A final layer of tension is brought to us with a glimpse inside the troubles between Martin Luther King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, involving the family’s finances, living situation (the Kings rented a small home in Atlanta) and King’s marital infidelity.

The backdrop gives us a look at King in as close to his entirety as a man as we can get in 127 minutes. The image of King in our school history books has him cast as an American saint who ascended on high after delivering his impassioned “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, but of course the imagery sells him, his work and the movement short.

The sad reality that Selma leaves us with is what may have been. King was felled by an assassin’s bullet in 1968 at the age of 39 as he worked to lead the Poor People’s Campaign, an effort that promised to take the movement to a new level, with a focus on economic and social justice across racial lines.

Forty-seven years later, America is as divided on race and economic class issues as ever. Tax policies have redistributed wealth to economic elites, and a spate of shootings of unarmed African-Americans by white police officers who are not being held accountable by the criminal-justice system bring to mind scenes from Selma involving similar official inactivity in the 1960s South.

Set against the backdrop of the present day, it’s not hard to identify with Selma’s King, who struggles with the risks that he, his family, fellow leaders and protestors faced with the struggle.

The right to vote was supposed to solve it all; and yet the images of the film of 1965 Selma’s official response to the voting-rights campaign compare well, sadly, to the images from Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, with a near-supermajority black population still not able to put into place a color-blind local police force and justice system.

It’s not the fault of Webb and DuVernay that the high note they want to leave us with on the steps of the State Capitol rings hollow.

That one is on us for thinking that the battles had won the war.

– Review by Chris Graham



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