Although the march from Selma to Washington that inspired the movie “Selma” occurred more than 50 years ago, Ava DuVernay’s Golden Globe and Oscar-nominated film feels very modern. Early on in the film, Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) is petitioning President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in the Oval Office — asking him to expand voting rights for southern states.
King understood that voting was fundamental to change. There were murders and lynchings; the KKK blew up four girls in a Birmingham Baptist church. Everyone knew who the murderers were, but the terrorists were never punished. That’s because the scales of justice are weighted. “You can’t serve on a jury unless you can vote,” King tells Johnson. So white murderers were tried in white courts by white juries.
Oyelowo speaks like a Baptist preacher preaching the gospel of injustice. Scripted by Paul Webb and directed by DuVernay, Oyelowo’s speeches are very eloquent — full of metaphors and repetition. His words aren’t the ones King actually used — those words are copyrighted to DreamWorks and Warner Bros. for Steven Spielberg’s pending MLK biopic — but they wash over us like poetry. In one scene, Oyelowo compares the black suffrage movement to trying to get a seat at any lunch table. Unfortunately, blacks and whites are given different opportunities and blacks can’t even read from the menu.
DuVernay slams us with imagery, appealing to our pathos. Edited by Spencer Averick, each bomb and gun shot is slowed down and personified. The four black girls from Birmingham look like broken porcelain dolls as debris flies everywhere. Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) is taken down by Selma police officers like a big black gorilla. Time freezes when Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) is shot. These scenes are as violent and as controversial as when Hammond police smashed a car door window to tase the African-American passenger in the car. When we eventually watch the violent and historic showdown at Edmund Pettus Bridge, it feels as if a dam broke, and we can’t stop the waterworks as we cringe with each beating.
We know how this story ends. President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on August 6.
But even as “Selma” presents us with a form of closure, we know that years later, the white police officers responsible for Oscar Grant, Travyon Martin and Mike Brown’s deaths were also tried by courts. BART officer Johannes Mehserle was sentenced to two years in prison; he got out in less than a year. George Zimmerman was acquitted for charges of manslaughter and second-degree murder. Ferguson’s former police officer Darren Wilson was not indicted.
And we still march crying, “No justice, no peace.”
“Selma” was directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Paul Webb. The film’s song “Glory” won a Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Original Song. “Selma” was also nominated for Best Picture in the 87th Academy Awards.