Director: Ava DuVernay
Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth And Oprah Winfrey
UK Release date: 6 February 2015
Running time: 128 mins
Ava DuVernay. In case you haven’t heard that name already (where on earth have you been?), then make a mental note of it, because you will know her, and also remember her for decades to come.
DuVernay is the African-American director who took on the herculean task of bringing to life, the events that led to one of America’s most pivotal moments in history- The signing of equal voting rights for African-Americans in 1965.
The battleground (and that’s exactly what it was) was the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama. The year was 1965 and Dr Martin Luther King had only just recently been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. A few months before the march that made Selma a historic town, 4 young girls had been gruesomely murdered in a Church bomb blast, an act of white supremacist racism.
This is the opening scene of the film. As the girls walk down the stairs, talking about mundane things pre teen girls get excited about, like how their mum tied and styled their hair. The bomb hits the stairs and catches them mid conversation. The impact of the blast knocks them off their feet as their bodies become buried deep beneath the rubbles of the Church, to be discovered in the aftermath of the blast. The attack horrified the entire nation, but theirs was not the only death that paid the price of the freedom, us black people enjoy today, wherever you are in the world.
There was something about that opening scene. The senseless loss of innocent lives in the struggle for something that should be a basic human right- the right to be treated fairly and equally, regardless of the colour of your skin.That scene stayed with me long after the film had finished, because nearly 50 years later, black people are still fighting that fight. The fight to be treated equally and people are still loosing their lives for it.
As much as Selma is about the brilliance of Dr Martin Luther King and the role he played in the civil rights movement, DuVernay also made a point of shinning the spotlight on some unsung heroes of the civil rights movement. Many of whom were women whom we hadn’t heard of before this film was made. Without the contribution and support of people like Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey), John Lewis, Hosea Williams, Amelia Boynton and many more including grandfather Cager Lee who watched his grandson Jimmie Lee Jackson murdered in front of him after a midnight protest, while bravely trying to protect his mother from the brutal force of the police, the historic walk from Selma to Montgomery would never have happened.
Selma is a film about how a people- black people, came together and fought obstacles, obstacles so great, that those less brave would have been tempted to run in the other direction, and it wasn’t as if that was not an option. Indeed, as the film shows, even Dr Martin Luther King Jr, played flawlessly by British actor David Oyelowo, had doubts about the whole purpose of the movement. People were dying for the cause and he was beginning to feel the burden of that weight as the leader of the movement. Selma goes where history hasn’t deigned to go. Exploring King as a man, not just as a hero without flaws and again Oyelowo’s performance in carrying the emotion and mood of the man during those trying times. There is a Church scene where Dr King addresses the people of Alabama right after the unlawful murder of Lee and the mood is so profound, it would have been hard not to heed his rallying call for unity and justice.
Dr King was just like you and I. As great a man as he was, it’s key to remember that he was just a man. He had doubts, he had flaws and if he could still achieve all the momentous things he did before his untimely death at the age of 39, then you and I, have no excuse, no hiding place, not to play our part in contributing to humanity.
There has been a lot of talk about the film being shunned at the academy awards, but let’s make no mistake. Selma is a film for the people, by the people. An Oscar would have been great and deserved, because the cast were outstanding, as was the director. But Oscar or not, this is a beautiful film and the fact that it wasn’t garnished with one cannot take that fact away from it.
Selma’s relevance in today’s world is too obvious to overlook. In America, where the recent deaths of unarmed young black men being killed by police has brought the race debate to the front burner of politics and here in the UK, as we prepare for the general elections to decide who will run the country for the next few years. Many black people are still not registering to vote, because they feel it’s not important or their votes won’t change anything. The situation now may not be as extreme as it was in 1965, but perhaps this quote from Ava DuVernay may shine more light on why it is important for you, as a black person to exercise your fundamental human right- a right some people fought and died for, some of them white.
“The process that we call justice in this country is directly connected to the right to vote. We often take for granted what voting enables us to do – but one of those things is to sit on a jury. So if you are black in 1960s Alabama and intimidated to the point that you can’t even register to vote, that means that you can never sit on a jury to gain justice for yourself or for others like you. The degree to which the right to vote affects the everyday life of people was something I’d never fully processed until I got into the research for Selma.”
Selma opens in UK cinemas today, Friday 6th of February. Go see it.