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King's Alabama Crusade Through Selma

Updated on November 26, 2015

Martin Luther King, Jr., led many a campaign for civil rights campaign, and his efforts to get civil rights for all in Alabama are the subject of the movie Selma. After receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, King (David Oyelowo) eagerly awaits a return to his civil rights work. In early 1965, he and his associates in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference decide to focus their efforts on the city of Selma, where African Americans continue to be denied their right to vote. In one instance, potential voter Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) continues to be denied voting rights at the whim of a clerk who makes sure the hurdles she faces to registration cannot be conquered. King, after the Nobels, meets with President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) regarding the issue. Johnson indicates he has other more important issues, but King finds the crusade against enforcing certain civil rights too much to ignore in Alabama. J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) has been wiretapping the King home and making reports on the reverend's contacts. King's wife, Coretta (Carmen Egojo), also has her concerns about Martin with every crusade. An attempt to protest the voting office is met with resistance by local law enforcement, who arrest King, Cooper, and others.

King and his followers, as well as local activists, then make plans to walk from Selma to Montgomery in peaceful protest. Jim Clark (Stan Houston), the sheriff of Dallas County, wants to reiterate his message of intolerance, and gets assistance from Alabama state troopers. Once the protestors cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they ignore Clark's orders to disperse. Police not only respond with a physical show of force, they also use tear gas on the marchers. The incident not only makes the national news, but it also brings a show of support from whites who wish for them to complete the march. President Johnson meets with King and Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) to try to get them to stop their tactics. They cross the bridge a second time, but the officers do not resist, which worries King, who halts this attempt. More violence occurs, but some local citizens are the perpetrators in this instance. With they help of attorney Fred Gray (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), they seek a court order from Frank Minis Johnson (Martin Sheen) to make their march legal, who promises to deliberate and make a final decision.

Selma is a very good look at how King spoke, mobilized people, and demanded a call to action. History will show that President Johnson was much more aggressive in pursuing the passage of the Voting Rights Act than the film portrays, but the drama shows how steadfastly both King and Wallace held their beliefs in that day. Johnson knew this change had to happen - and soon. Wallace wanted to stand in the way of anyone who felt that civil rights and voting rights should be enforced consistently. King kept telling his supporters, meanwhile, to not resort to the sort of violent tactics that Clark and others had employed. That doesn't stop some fighting, including Cooper's attack on the sheriff. The script for Selma comes from first-time screenwriter Paul Webb, who effectively represents the actions of a variety of people who were a part of these historical events. Selma also marks the first major big screen drama from director Ava Duvernay, who has spent most of her career directing in television. She makes history come to life as she shows how the disenfranchised want their say in the actions that affect their lives.

People may talk about the acting snubs from Oscar, but DuVernay has assembled has assembled an ensemble who make solid contributions. Oyelowo shows the passion, confidence, and resolve of Dr. King, who knew that his strength came with many other voices adding theirs. In one scene, the reverend turns to a local leader in the voting cause, John Lewis (Stephan James), to make sure the SCLC hasn't become too intrusive with their work. King finds Lewis appreciative, and willing to work with the coalition of religious leaders. Yet, King never lost sight of the backlash his efforts received, as when he was punched by a white man after trying to register at an all-white hotel, or when people were killed as a result of his efforts. Wilkinson also shines in support as President Johnson, who grows more concerned for King as Alabama leadership and citizens show their resistance for change and greater inclusion. Roth is also very good as Wallace, who doesn't fully understand that change will come, either through peaceful efforts or executive orders. Others not already mention that give depth to the ensemble include Colman Domingo (as Ralph Abernathy), Wendell Pierce (as Hosea Williams), Common (as James Bevel), Giovanni Ribisi (as Lee White), Andre Holland (as Andrew Young), Stephen Root (as Al Lingo), and Lorraine Toussaint (as Amelia Robinson).

The move toward civil rights for all Americans has not gone without its problems, and remains a move that has not been completely achieved. The steps have come too slowly, but the steps, at least, have come. Selma shows a man who made many of those steps, and whose legacy of work will long be remembered. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was an orator, a demonstrator, and an advocate for equal rights in many ways. Selma tells just one of the chapters, and shows just how hard his quest could be. King helped to make things change, and others continue to work for more changes far beyond getting all citizens of one state their well-deserved right to vote.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Selma 3.5 stars. We must overcome.


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