Film & TV

Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Selma:’ Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire

Film Review: 'Selma'
BY Mark Jackson TIMEOctober 31, 2020 PRINT

PG-13 | | Biography, Drama, History | 9 January 2015 (USA)

When Martin Luther King Day rolls around, do you sometimes scratch your head and go, “Why’d he get his own holiday again, exactly?” Some have forgotten, and some never learned what Martin Luther King Jr. did for this country.

And yet when “Selma” debuted in 2015, news headlines regarding race were eerily reminiscent of headlines from 1965. Did we learn anything in 50 years?

Five little black girls descending staircase in "Selma"
Five little black girls, as portrayed in “Selma,” died in a tragic church bombing. (Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures/Path/Harpo Films)

The superb “Selma” can teach your teens a powerful history lesson, while putting the “moving” back in movies. “Selma” is not the type of lifespan-sweeping hagiography that dulls senses with overstuffing, but much like Steven Spielberg did with “Lincoln,” it puts the focus on one key passage of King’s journey.

To Set the Stage, a Church Bombing

“Selma” opens with King (David Oyelowo) at a 1965 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, five young black girls dressed in their Sunday finest descend a church staircase in the American South. A bomb detonates, killing them all.

The film depicts the standard 1960s humiliations suffered by Southern blacks, due to America’s deep-seated and lingering Jim Crow-era prejudice, which for all intents and purposes rendered black people’s constitutional right to vote null and void.

Dr. King’s been in talks with President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) about a protest march meant to hurry the passage of LBJ’s Voting Rights Act that will allow blacks to vote, but the president feels that’s all a bit hasty. He’s more focused on his “War on Poverty,” pointing out that it’s something that would also benefit blacks.

It’s been pointed out that LBJ came up with the poverty idea after touring Appalachia and witnessing the dirt-poor existence of Southern whites there, but that’s another topic.

King’s campaign of civil disobedience lasted three months in 1965, culminating in a nonviolent protest march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, the state capital—meant to gas up and turn on the car of President Johnson’s Voting Rights Act.

Two men in grey suits stand in front of bookshelf in "Selma"
President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, L) meets with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) in “Selma.” (Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures/Path/Harpo Films)

LBJ wants no part of the march. He’s caught between a rock and a hard place; he’s not stupid, he has foresight and knows King’s stance is the future, and he rather agrees with it (which has been criticized elsewhere as erroneously painting LBJ as a sort of reluctant progressive).

protesters marching over a bridge in "Selma"
The Selma to Montgomery march of 1965 in Alabama: a 54-mile route where protesters, walking around the clock for three days straight, were confronted with deadly violence from local authorities and white vigilante groups while under the protection of federalized National Guard troops, in “Selma.” (Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures/Path/Harpo Films)

As president, LBJ also needed to take meetings with the openly racist governor of Alabama, George Wallace (Brit actor Tim Roth in fine, arrogant, smarmy form), and his ilk. As LBJ says to MLK, “You’re an activist. I’m a politician.”

King knows that Wallace and other local authorities will probably rain down violence on his intended march and so makes sure there’s a massive media turnout.

“Selma” brings home vividly just how much the marchers were endangering their lives by demonstrating. It’s violent and visceral and none of it is gratuitous. It takes a page from “12 Years a Slave” in that the brutal billy-club beatings, bullwhips, shootings, and face-kicking by police and Southern white locals carry more violence in the intensity of the inner hatred rather than in bloody visuals.

man standing at podium in front of Rebel flag in "Selma"
Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth, L) in “Selma.” (Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures/Path/Harpo Films)

The Players

Some of King’s fellow activists are John Lewis (Stephan James), who was, during the making of “Selma,” the only living member of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, along with James Bevel (Common), and Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo).

Oprah, eschewing Her Winfreyness, gives herself over to the role of nurse Annie Lee Cooper, lending an air of authenticity in serving the cause.

woman in blue dress getting arrested by cops in "Selma"
Nurse Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey, C) resists arrest in “Selma.” (Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures/Path/Harpo Films)

But British actor David Oyelowo is king of—as well as King in—this film, as well as possibly establishing the definitive on-screen portrayal of King to date. He shows us a man, and he shows us why that man is now a legend.

man taking mugshot in "Selma"
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) posing for a mugshot in “Selma.” (Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures/Path/Harpo Films)

He shows us a man with self-doubt, a man who calls gospel singer Mahalia Jackson in the middle of the night, seeking strength and inspiration from her singing. A conflicted man who loves his wife but wasn’t faithful. A man who sheds tears with the bereft, and a man who enjoys the jokes and friendship of his fellow leaders.

man giving speech in "Selma"
Andrew Young (André Holland, L) and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) in “Selma.” (Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures/Path/Harpo Films)

Oyelowo also put on the requisite weight and holds King’s facial gestures to the point of channeling. He’s got King’s speech patterns down, which in their uniqueness border on caricature, or a least stylization, but he never crosses the line. The virtuoso speeches and sermons are explosions of virtue and inspiration. It’s a great feat of theater craft, not to mention the fact that Oyelowo is British.

four black men in suits and hats leaning on car in "Selma"
(L–R) Andrew Young (André Holland), Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo), and James Orange (Omar Dorsey) in “Selma.” (Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures/Path/Harpo Films)

It’s always a challenge to bring life, let alone high tension, to political wheeling and dealing, but director Ava DuVernay pulls it off.

Ultimately, “Selma” doesn’t promote hate or assign blame. Rather, it shows how people can get together, cooperate, and change things. Transcendent and inspiring, it’s one of the most important films of 2015, and worth a viewing during this time in America when race relations have taken a new turn, and not necessarily a good turn.

From the 2020 Perspective

Most people today don’t realize that modern socialism, liberalism, and progressivism are way stations designed specifically by Marx and Engels—solely for the purpose of moving societies, incrementally, à la the proverbial boiling frog—toward communism. When communism finally wraps itself around society’s throat like an “Alien” facehugger, it’s too late.

Communism also deviously finds ways to undermine a country by trying to divide it. America’s troubled racial history was seen as low-hanging fruit for factions of the Communist Party that took root in America and infiltrated the Civil Rights Movement; witness the Black Panther Party collectively waving Chinese Communist Party leader Mao’s Red Book. And it’s no secret that Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors said in a newly surfaced video from 2015 that she and her fellow organizers are “trained Marxists.”

Epoch Times Photo
Black Panther cadre read and promoted Mao’s “Little Red Book. ” (BermudaRadical)

The 1960s is ancient history, for many reasons. One of those reasons is that the new evil, communism, has come to replace the old evil: the human greed and corruption of the Southern Antebellum and Jim Crow eras of the American past that blacks suffered under.

Watch “Selma” to honor Dr. Martin Luther King’s fight against the evils of African-American history past. Then listen to “How the Specter of Communism Is Ruling Our World” to witness the current fight against communism, and its intent to burn American Democracy to the ground.

Director: Ava DuVernay
Starring: David Oyelowo, Oprah Winfrey, Tessa Thompson, Carmen Ejogo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Giovanni Ribisi, Tim Roth, Tom Wilkinson
Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes
Release date: Jan. 9, 2015
Rated PG-13
4 stars out of 5

Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.
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