Thursday, May 04, 2017

Selma

We wanted to see this in the cinema, but it wasn't mainstream enough for our local Odeon, so we had to wait until it was on the telly. A powerful film on the civil rights movement in 1960's America. At that time blacks in the Deep South were denied their constitutional right to vote by an obstructive voter registration system. The town of Selma was a case in point. British actor David Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights leader masterminded peaceful protests in Selma with the aim of pressurising President L. B. Johnson into legislating to remove barriers to black people registering to vote. 

Fellow-Brit Tom Wilkinson plays the President. The clashes between MLK and LBJ are well done. The President explains that as a politician he has to be concerned about many things, while as an activist King is only focused on one thing. Johnson sympathises with the cause, but needs time. King wants urgent action. 

All the main parts are well acted, offering convincing portrayals of the characters involved. You'll wait in vain for Oyelowo's rendition of the 'I have a dream...' speech, as the King family denied the film makers the rights to make use of MLK's speeches. The sermons and speeches shown in the film have been cobbled together, but they seem to hit the right tone. 

Things turn nasty in Selma when black people attempt to stage a protest march from the town to Montgomery, the Alabama Sate capital. The road was blocked by police at the far side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The police charge the protesters, mercilessly beating unarmed men and women. A black man is shot in the clear up operation. King rallies people of all colours to the cause, especially inviting Christian Ministers to join a second march to Montgomery. 

King leads the marchers to within sight of the police line that once more blocked the road at the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Rather than risking another confrontation, the preacher drops to his knees in prayer and then turns around, leading the protesters back into town. 

The act of preaching is rarely explored in Holywood movies, so it was interesting to hear the dialogue between two Ministers involved in the protest as they discussed King's actions. One of them complains that Dr. King had betrayed them. He called and they came, yet at the crucial moment he turned back. The other suggests that MLK's actions may have been instinctual, "like in preaching when you are just flying. You are not on your notes, not on memory, you're tapped into what's higher, what's true. God is guiding you....Maybe that's what happened to Dr. King on the bridge. He prayed, God answered, and he had the courage to do what God had said."  

On third attempt a protest march to Montgomery finally took place, winning much needed publicity for the cause. Publicity turned into political pressure and Johnson comes round in the end. His 'We will overcome' speech is a highlight of the film. The Voting Rights Acts was passed August 1965, paving the way for black votes without obstruction.

Like all films based on historical episodes this one doesn't let the facts get in the way of a good story. It's not a documentary after all, but the main message comes through clearly without it being too preachy (for a film about a preacher). All human beings are created equal. On that basis racism, whether  casual or institutional is a moral outrage and should be opposed by all people of good will. 

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