Selma 50 Years Later: Why We Must Not Forget!


Director Ava DuVernay with actors David Oyelowo and Oprah Winfrey from the movie "Selma."

This year on the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday, all of the ninth graders at Rectory School went to see the movie “Selma,” a biopic directed by Ava DuVernay, the first African-American woman to be awarded Sundance Film Festival’s Best Director award. “Selma” tackles the struggles of human rights’ champion Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and of those he lead. From the first minute, the serious tone of the movie is displayed through the use of a surprisingly stylized depiction of the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four young African-American girls. This act of violence is contrasted with the quiet demeanor of Dr. King as we first see him in the next scene, fidgeting with his tie and preparing to receive his Nobel Peace Prize. Even though he is about to receive one of the most prestigious awards known to man, Dr. King is still portrayed as a human, cracking jokes to his wife about what his friends back home will think of the clothes he is wearing for the event.

Ava DuVernay began this project with two goals in mind, both of which are formidable tasks: 1) to make African-Americans proud of their history and of the struggles they have overcome; and 2) to paint Martin Luther King Jr. as a human. The first goal is accomplished flawlessly, and not a moment too soon. With riots in Baltimore and Ferguson serving to remind us how far we still have to go, all of America could use a reminder of how far we’ve come. DuVernay’s second goal is accomplished throughout the movie. Either through showing King taking out the trash, a chore we all have to do, or by adding a slight pant to his breathing after he finishes giving a speech, we are constantly reminded that he is just a man. One particularly humbling scene takes place in a morgue, as Dr. King is speaking to the father of a boy killed after attending one of his marches. The Doctor is at a loss for words, stumbling to put together a sentence that can accurately represent the loss he feels. Finally, his face grows serious, and with the same conviction he displays in his speeches, he delivers the most striking line in the movie. Looking directly into the eyes of the elderly man who has just lost a son, Dr. Martin Luther King says, “I am certain of one thing; God was the first to cry. … God was the first to cry for your son.” In my opinion, this perfectly captures the essence of Doctor King. While he may have been human, in an instant, he could cut to the truth and display it in a deeply touching way.

“Selma” takes place after the “I have a dream” speech. By now, King is no longer a surprising upstart, but a political force to be reckoned with. As such, every move he makes is scrutinized not only by the public, but also by the CIA, who have bugged his phone, his house, and every hotel room he stays at. However important he is as a person at this time, “Selma” chooses to focus on a seemingly unimportant battle. When asked about the civil rights movement, most people would begin to talk about Rosa Parks, and her famous “No!” Most people would talk about the bus boycotts and the “I have a dream” speech. Few people would call the fight for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, the defining moment of the civil rights movement, but Ava DuVernay would beg to differ. “Selma” uses an increasingly popular style of movie-making, which is to show a small detail of a larger movement. Few viewers have the interest or attention span to watch a documentary-style movie about Dr. King’s entire rise to prominence, but nearly everyone can stay interested in a small battle. This ingenious method means choosing a moment to represent a movement. The Selma campaign truly does capture the essence of the whole Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In that small town, a group of underprivileged people fights non-violently for rights being denied to them, facing strong opposition that more often than not turns violent. Could that not be a definition of the whole movement countrywide? Most of us are incapable of comprehending the scale of the whole movement, but “Selma” serves it up to us in a way we can comprehend; a small group of people in a small town. But in actuality, that small group of people represents the African-American population of America in the 1960s, and that small town is our entire country.

I would give “Selma” a rating of 8/10. With breakout performances from previous no-names such as lead David Oyelowo (who was never just an actor playing Dr. King; he was Dr. King) and from established stars such as Oprah Winfrey, the casting could not be better. The cinematography manages to be striking without flashy colors or techniques. The directing is well done, especially during the hectic scenes in which police clash with protestors. When asked by NPR about the factors required to make such a scene feel real, Ava DuVernay said, “The sound design for that bridge sequence is something I’m very proud of. And it’s just about this kind of sensory immersion putting you on the bridge throughout the film whenever a body is broken — a black body, a white body — whenever there’s any kind of violence to the body, sound becomes critical.”

As good as this movie is, what would have made it a 10/10 would be if we got to see how King interacted with the others in his SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference.) We get to see him argue with his wife, argue with the police, and give inspiring speeches, but most of his interactions with his co-conspirators consist of tense meetings without much personality. Save for a few scenes, their relationship seems all business, and I for one would have loved to see another side of that, a more informal side. Still, this movie is a must-see for anyone interested in the civil rights movement. As the first movie to have Martin Luther King, Jr. as its main character, it is a truly groundbreaking and well-made film.