Fifty years ago this week, about 550 everyday people began a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, seeking equal voting rights for all minorities in the United States. When they tried crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, they were brutally beaten by State Troopers and their newly-deputised posse (read: thugs for hire). That fateful day, now known as “Bloody Sunday”, and those leading up to it are depicted in this powerfully moving film starring David Oyelowo as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth and Oprah Winfrey.
The Chinese title for the film is “馬丁·路德·金” (Martin Luther King), but that’s somewhat of a misnomer as SELMA is not a biopic. Rather, the film focusses on a three-month period when King negotiates with President Lyndon Johnson to extend voting rights to blacks. At the same time, it is a story about simple people like Annie Lee Cooper and many others whose names we don’t know but who were brave enough to risk their lives standing up to injustice.
SELMA is directed by little known Ava DuVernay, whose 2012 film, MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, was the darling of the Sundance Film Festival that year. DuVernay went on to win the Directing Award and was also nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. British actor, David Oyelowo, who stars as MLK, has said in interviews that when he first saw the script in 2007, he knew that he was destined to play the role. Four years went by before he was able to find the right director – DuVernay – whom he had just worked with on her film. A year later, Oyelowo showed a demo tape to Oprah, whom he was working with on LEE DANIEL’S THE BUTLER, and she got on board the project as a producer. That’s when, he said, things really began to take off. When people say that Oyelowo captured King’s cadence (if not his gravitas), he laughs, saying that he had seven years to get it right.
Without a doubt, SELMA admirably covers a very important subject. However, it also reinterprets or chooses to ignore some key historical facts. The LBJ Foundation has taken SELMA’s screenwriter to task for the film’s portrayal of President Johnson as a reluctant supporter of civil rights. The protectors of his legacy claim that civil rights was where the president got it right. In the film it appears that Johnson was backed into a corner, first by King, then by the events on the bridge at Selma that were televised to an audience of 70 million people. That’s just not true, says the foundation’s spokesman. Similarly, the film glosses over the contribution that many American Jews made to the civil rights movement. As a minority group that were blatantly discriminated against both in the US and Europe (the Holocaust was just 20 years earlier), Jewish lawyers and civil rights activists actively supported the movement and offered counsel to Dr. King. Other Jews quietly provided manpower and funding to the cause. Yes, the film shows a few token Jews on the march to Montgomery but their participation is understated.
For us in Hong Kong and for those who know what is going on here politically, SELMA offers an obvious parallel to the peaceful Occupy protests that took place here a few months ago. That point was not lost on rapper Common, whose song “Glory” (which was co-written by John Legend) won the Best Song Oscar at the Academy Awards. It wouldn’t surprise me if that part of the Oscar broadcast was blacked out in China! Here is that part of his speech:
Watching SELMA, it is so apparent how far the American civil rights movement has come in a half a century, yet it is equally apparent how far it still has to go. From the treatment of African-Americans at the hands of the mostly Caucasian police force in Ferguson, Missouri, to the recent restrictive changes to voter ID laws that statistically affect African-Americans more than they do any other racial or ethnic group, true equality is, unfortunately, still just a dream.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 29:45.)
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