By Al Alexander
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Fifty years! Fifty: 5-0! That’s how long it’s been since the passage of the Voting Rights Act. It was meant to be the end of government-sponsored racism, but a 2013 Supreme Court ruling pretty much gutted it by allowing states to impose restrictions like voter ID. What does this have to do with the Oscar-baiting “Selma”?
Well, just about everything. It’s a movie, yes. It even has Oprah Winfrey’s imprint as an actress and producer. But this stirring account of the fight to end racially motivated voting impediments in the Deep South is more than anything a much-needed wake-up call for a country that has seriously lost its way in terms of equality. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. And the poorer they get, the more disenfranchised they become.
That’s why “Selma” is so much more than “just a movie.” It’s a call to arms, a plea to never let the dehumanizing events that occurred on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in March 1965 ever happen again. That’s especially true if you’re too young to remember the sight of police officers clubbing and beating unarmed protesters who wanted nothing more than to be granted their right to free and open access to the polling place.
The recreations of the infamous “Bloody Sunday” violence are some of the most compelling scenes in Ava DuVernay’s moving account of the efforts by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and his Southern Leadership Conference to convince President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to push Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act.
But what lingers is the human toll the resulting beatings, shootings and humiliations took on the protesters — black and white (including murdered Boston minister Jim Reeb). They haunt you for days afterward. You simply can’t shake the images of fire hoses and snarling dogs being turned on human beings. Nor should you: It’s an ugly chapter in American history.
But what’s uglier is how the marginalization of black Americans is becoming commonplace again today. No matter what side you take on Michael Brown or Eric Garner, “Selma” will make you see these events through a new lens.
Yes, the film makes you angry, but it also inspires through the dozens of people who literally laid their lives on the line for social justice, and did so against a rigged system led by Alabama Gov. George Wallace (a miscast Tim Roth).
And don’t for a minute think this is — excuse the expression — a whitewash. It’s not. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by how DuVernay and writer Paul Webb present us with a very human King, a man full of power, but weighted by personal demons, including infidelity.
In fact, Oyelowo has his Oscar moment when King’s wife, Coretta (an outstanding Carmen Ejogo playing Coretta for a second time), confronts him with taped evidence — surreptitiously supplied by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (an over-the-top Dylan Baker) — of his sexual indiscretions. King denies it, of course. But what makes the scene chilling is when Coretta responds, “I know what you sound like.”
Oyelowo and Ejogo should be locks for Oscar nods, not because they’re almost dead ringers for the real thing, but because they embody their characters souls. Not to mention their charisma. You can’t take your eyes off either of them, making you wish both had more screen time together.
But this really isn’t a movie about them; it’s about the cast of thousands of extraordinary everyday people who came together for a common purpose. Even more, it’s a terrific lesson in the political process (a la “Lincoln”) as seen through King’s masterful manipulations of everything from television news (defining “caught on tape”) to the president, who the movie — fairly or unfairly — portrays as being wishy-washy on voting rights.
Some of Johnson’s surviving aides have taken issue with that depiction, saying Johnson backed King from the get-go. But remember, this is a movie, not a documentary. And seeing King play the president like a fiddle is enjoyable on the most visceral of levels.
Equally fun is seeing the emergence of future leaders like Andrew Young (Andre Holland) and John Lewis (Stephan James). They, along with King, were the stars of the movement, but the heroes are the people like Annie Lee Cooper, one of the few black Selma residents who dared to try to register to vote following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
She ended up being beaten to a pulp by redneck cops, but the photo of her bloody and prone in the street made front-page news across the country. In a way, she became the face of the voting movement.
And seeing her portrayed by Winfrey instead of an unknown adds to the resonance, because who in this world will not be moved seeing someone we all know — and many love — being clubbed in the street? Believe me, it’s powerful, as is the entire movie, which begins with King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and ends with actual footage of the march from Selma to Montgomery.
The latter will bring tears to your eyes like you won’t believe, as will the scene of four, happy, carefree little black girls being blown to bits by a bomb planted in their church. It has nothing to do with “the march,” and could be construed as prejudicial toward the film’s cause, but I can’t think of a scene that could better set the mood of hatred and violence that permeated the South at the time.
And it’s in keeping with DuVernay’s refusal to soft pedal or play nice. These were real lives that were ruined or lost, and to have it any other way would dishonor both the memory of Dr. King and the movement itself. It’s disturbing (in as much as PG-13 will allow), but it cannot, or should not, ever be ignored.
Rated PG-13 or disturbing thematic material, including violence, a suggestive moment and brief strong language. Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth and Oprah Winfrey. Directed by Ava DuVernay. Grade: A-.
Movie review: Soulful ‘Selma’ offers a new lens on history
By Al Alexander