Martin Luther King is a man who has a dream, as well as flaws, in “Selma”

Of all the Academy Award nominated films I’ve been waiting to see, I’ve anticipated Selma the most, ever since I heard that there were standing ovations at critics screenings last year. So, with the knowledge that there were Advance Screenings of Selma this weekend before its Australian release on April 12, I went along to the Rivoli yesterday afternoon.

Ava DuVernay’s Selma opens with Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. The Civil Rights Act has been passed, but there are basic human rights that black people in America are still not granted. From King’s acceptance of the award, we cross to the murder of four girls whose church was blown up, and a middle aged woman, Annie Lee Cooper (a cameo by Oprah Winfrey, who also produced the film), who is registering to vote at her local county. African Americans may legally have the right to vote, but institutions can prevent them from registering; “Recite the preamble to the constitution…” “How many county judges are there in Alabama?” – when Annie Lee Cooper answers correctly, she’s asked to “Name them”. Then when she fails to do so, the county clerk just stamps “DENIED” on her application form. The entire process is humiliating. That’s what systematic oppression is. It’s not people on the street cursing at you because of the way you look, or beating you up because they can, that’s everyday racism. Systematic oppression is the concerted effort of institutions to deny a group of people their basic human rights.

Selma works because it is not just about Dr Martin Luther King, but also the people he worked with, and his vision for the movement. It would be so easy to make a film that turned Martin Luther King into a saint, but Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo made him a person, complete with flaws and desires, but ultimately saw that the rights of his people were more important than him. King admits as much, when he’s going over the security detail after his march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital, Montgomery, has been approved; it’s suggested that he not make his speech in Montgomery because it’s harder to offer protection, and King says that yes, he wants to live a long and happy life with his family, but black people still can’t vote in Alabama, and that’s a wrong that needs to be righted. There’s also the knowledge the FBI has of his alleged (but probably real) affairs, which, together with his work has placed a strain on his marriage.

Selma is a brilliant film, in writing, acting and directing, and the fact that it has been so snubbed by the Academy makes me really angry, especially because Birdman is such an ordinary film, but it’s about showbusiness, so the Academy loves it. There have been a number of discussions about the fact that neither Ava DuVernay nor David Oyelowo were nominated for Best Director or Best Lead Actor respectively, and how it has become a reflection of the Academy’s voting body because as everyone now knows, there were no female directors or writers nominated, and all the nominated actors and actresses are white. There were so many fantastic performances from Oyelowo, Wendell Pierce, Lorraine Toussaint and a number of actors I’d never even heard of (between this and Orange Is the New Black, Lorraine Toussaint has had a great year), that it’s ridiculous that not one of them garnered an acting nomination. Here’s hoping for the win in the Best Original Song category.

Selma has also copped some flack for being historically inaccurate, which I can’t really speak to, because I don’t know that much about the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Still, American Sniper and The Imitation Game have also been criticised for similar things, yet Bradley Cooper and Benedict Cumberbatch have been nominated for Best Actor. Still, when I think about historical accuracy in film, Todd VanDerWerff has once again articulated my opinion better than I could:

What is fantastic about this film is that it shows rather than tells, and in its depiction of systematic oppression, it also touches on white privilege. History (?) SPOILER: a number of white people come to join the march at Selma and afterwards a white priest from Boston is beaten to death on the streets. King talks to President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), and commends him for calling the widow of the priest who died, but admonishes him for not calling the families of black people who had been murdered. Selma may not be the most accurate (again, who cares?) film in the world, but it speaks truth about systematic oppression, privilege and how much better people have to be when they’re trying to protest for their rights. One of the best scenes in Scandal is in the third season premiere, when Olivia Pope speaks to her father, and he reminds her that as black people they have to be “Twice as good [to get] half as far”, and that’s why Martin Luther King knows his movement needs to be peaceful. They need to rise above the violence that their oppressors are using to prove that they are worthy of the rights they deserve but don’t have.

Other Thoughts:

  • The casting in this film was fantastic, particularly with Dylan Baker (aka Colin Sweeney, the most delightfully twisted possible murderer in The Good Wife) as J. Edgar Hoover, and Martin Sheen as the Alabama judge (I’m really not sure of his jurisdiction) who grants the SCLC the right to their march.
  • With 12 Years A Slave and Lincoln, there have been some very good films made in the past few years about race relations in America. I don’t really know much about the reconstruction period though, so someone should make that.
  • Between The Wire, Treme, Orange Is the New Black, and now Selma (also apparently The Walking Dead, but I don’t watch that), we know that there are plenty of fantastic black actors working in America. Give them jobs!
  • There were scenes in which the President, the Governor of Alabama and Martin Luther King talked about legacy, and as someone living outside the US, I really only know about LBJ’s role in the Vietnam War, this is the first time I became aware of his involvement with King and the Civil Rights movement.
  • Glory, which was nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars really is fantastic:
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4 thoughts on “Martin Luther King is a man who has a dream, as well as flaws, in “Selma”

  1. Amy says:

    That song was crazy. My brain is going “yep, gospel and rap” and yet I was getting goosebumps.
    I think being painted as a saint doesn’t mean to be painted without flaws. Dude, some saints were weird as…

  2. I totally agree with you on the saint thing, I just couldn’t think of a better way to phrase it. It’s just that these historical figures become so venerated that they’re flawless, and it’s good that the movie actually made him a character.

    The song had me in goosebumps when it played over the closing credits. I like that it’s not just about the events in the film, but also the continuing struggles for civil rights.

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