It’s been almost 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated at the age of 39. Bizarrely, in all that time there has never been a feature film about him, one of the most iconic figures of the American civil rights movement.
But perhaps, the time has never been more right for such a film. 2014 was a year of upheaval in the United States, with race riots breaking out across the country over the shootings of black men by white police officers. Ferguson is nothing new, as the film Selma shows.
Making a film about a beloved, inspirational figure is never an easy task. Yet, director Ava duVernay does it with flair. Her approach has been to deconstruct the myth of King (played by David Oyelowo). Just like Nelson Mandela, King was a man with many flaws. DuVernay was unafraid to show some of these flaws, such as the preacher’s many infidelities. “I focused on a story about characters. I really see Dr King as an ordinary man who did extraordinary things,” she explains.
The film opens with a middle-aged black woman filling out a form to register to vote. She’s the activist Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey). She goes to the court house to hand in the form. This is one of countless attempts to register. By law, she is allowed to cast her ballot. As so many time before, the official refuses her registration, each time finding a ridiculous reason for this.
It is this particular denial of rights that sparked the series of civil rights marches held in March 1965, from the town of Selma in Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery. This is also the focus of the film: a time that changed the course of history. The first march on 7 March became known as “Bloody Sunday”, as images of white police officers attacking and beating peaceful protestors were broadcast across the country and the world. This Rubicon moment played right into King’s hands. He now had the support he needed for an even bigger march, this time including many whites.
Perhaps the most powerful image in the film is of that second demonstration, just days after the violence. On the same bridge where the state troopers had previously attacked the activists, another confrontation loomed as the marchers once again faced a barricade of white police officers. King, this time leading the crowd, pauses. Then he does something astounding. He kneels, prays, gets up and turns back. The message is clear: the protests are peaceful, righteous, and fair. It is not the civil rights moment that is seeking violence.
President Lyndon B Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) was forced to order the governor of Alabama to let yet another march go ahead, which it did, a couple of weeks later. He could also no longer delay signing into law a bill that guaranteed the rights of African Americans to register to vote.
Oyelowo’s performance as King is masterly. He captures the enigma of an almost mythic figure, yet makes King’s character human, showing his inner turmoil and his defiance in the face of injustice. The Academy overlooking him for an Oscar nomination in the best actor category is shameful. The British actor said he wanted to show “the humanity of the man, how burdened he was by a feeling of wanting to do right, of wanting to be accountable.” Having achieved this, there is certainly nothing more Oyelowo could have done to impress anyone.
Selma has at least been nominated for a best picture Oscar, though it’s unlikely to receive the award in the face of very stiff competition.
This film will resonate with South Africans in a way few other international productions can. The local premiere was attended by struggle stalwarts Ahmed Kathrada, Tokyo Sexwale and Trevor Manuel. In a speech before the screening, director of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Sello Hatang, explained that the struggle for equal rights in America has mirrored our own.
“Glory! Glory! Glory” King shouts at the end of the film. Glorious indeed.
Director: Ava duVernay
Cast: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Oprah Winfrey
Rating: 4 out of 5