By Bonnie Anderson and Dan Webster
This historical drama film is spectacular on many levels. Most obviously because America has been abundantly blessed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s undeterred love for justice, and this film reminds us of that. The film deftly demonstrates not only Dr. King’s love for justice but David Oyelowo, who plays Dr. King, has an acting skill that enables Dr. King’s love for the people he serves to project right from the screen into the hearts of the audience. The incredible courage of the people in pursuit of justice and their palpable disdain for hopelessness is as present as a heartbeat throughout the film.
Dr. King and his advisors Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo) and C.T. Vivian (Corey Reynolds) were brilliant strategists who worked with Dr. King during his civil rights campaign. Although the campaign was extensive and featured many tactics including the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, the film “Selma” focuses on the activities surrounding the quest for voting rights and the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, just one year after Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Systematically disenfranchised from voting, on the heels of the Civil Rights Act, this film and the account of events surrounding Selma is testimony to the old saying, “courage is contagious.” Even though the spirit and strength of the people was consistently and brutally challenged, they persevered. It is gut wrenching to watch the cruelty rendered against Dr. King and his followers and even though we know we are watching a movie, we also know these brutal events actually occurred.
The use of power by white police and politicians and the abject curious, but studied disinterest exhibited by white citizens, graphically illustrate the formidable resistance faced by Dr. King and his constituents as they relentlessly pursued their right to vote. As we know, the oppressive power was eventually overcome through non-violence, prayer, strong faith careful planning and the perseverance of courageous black people.
The faith of the people is evident and not underplayed in the film. There is prayer. There is a special call by Dr. King addressed to clergy across the nation to join the march. Eventually, as the brutality and cause became well-known, white clergy and activists joined the campaign.
Dr. King often turns to God for strength and inspiration, and his friends and chief strategist, Ralph Abernathy surround him. Dr. King confers with them continually. Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) is steadfast and the toll that the civil rights/equality campaign took on the personal life of the family is not stressed in the film.
This film shows Dr. King as the political genius he was and with his genius and the organizing savvy of Abernathy (Colman Domingo), Vivian, (and support of Andrew Young, John Lewis and others, he revealed the “secret heart of America” to America itself. Building the path toward equality “rock by rock,” getting white activists, religious leaders, students and organizations involved, the film shows that King trusted the belief that the country could not bear the reality of the sinful oppression of other Americans. As those religious leaders from across the country joined in the march, it became evident that Governor Wallace (Tim Roth) would be defeated and the marchers would not be inhibited in their march from Selma to Montgomery.
The film has been criticized strongly for misrepresenting LBJ and for not depicting Ralph Abernathy accurately. The role of these men in real life was significant in the movement. They are not mere extras, as could be interpreted from the film, although LBJ has a significant role, but particularly with regards to Reverend Abernathy who founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and was a gifted strategist.
Keep in mind this film is not a documentary and what it reminds us is very timely. Not only is it released near the national holiday set aside to remember Dr. King, but current national headlines speak of issues of race and use/abuse of power that are yet to be addressed in our country. Perhaps God will bring together other gifted leaders to shed light on present injustice?
This film is a “must see.” Take teenagers with you.
Bonnie Anderson and Dan Webster invite you to visit our blog: http://faithreels.blogspot.com
Bonnie Anderson is senior warden at All Saints-Pontiac, Michigan and the immediate past president of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church’s General Convention. Dan Webster is a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and former broadcast news journalist.
Posted by Ann Fontaine