March will mark the 50th anniversary of the marches from Selma to Montgomery, which led to the Voting Rights Act later that year. It was a landmark achievement and the story behind it has never before been adequately depicted on screen. Even in documentaries of the honorable Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was among the leaders of the marches, the details of this harrowing act and the deadly, authoritarian violence with which it was met have not been given full attention until now, with director Ava Duvernay’s Selma.
After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was banned federally and ended segregation in public schools, but parts of the South, particularly Alabama, continued to operate with corrupt and discriminatory policies, requiring voters to recite the constitution or other insidious requests, hence the marches demanding that states not be allowed to implement racist restrictions on voters. The debate about unfair and racist policies was renewed in the last two years, after the Supreme Court overturned the key measure requiring state lawmakers to seek federal approval before changing voting requirements. A slew of Voter ID Laws have followed, many of which are being fought by Civil Rights groups anew.
The movie is certainly timely in light of these developments and other protests against institutional violence. It is also the first feature film of MLK Jr, who would be turning 68 day today were he still alive. Director Ava Duvernay (The Help, Good Hair) delivers a concise and intentional look into the lives of civil rights leaders King (David Oyelowo), John Lewis (Stephan James), and James Bevel (Common) at this pivotal, historical moment. Also noteworthy is Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper, an activist who was brutally beaten by Selma Sheriff Jim Clark in front of the courthouse where she was trying to vote before he physically forced her away (and she retaliated by punching him in the jaw).
The storytelling reveals the human, vulnerable side of these activists and leaders trying to keep peace and project their highest ideals in the face of brutality. Duvernay was very clear in stating that she does not consider it a documentary in an interview with Gwen Ifill on PBS News Hour, saying, “I am not a custodian of anyone’s legacy.” She has, at least, helped preserve a crucial part of American history in a beautiful and powerful piece of cinema at a time when we might most need a reminder of these past struggles and a certain dream for a better future.
SIFF Cinema Uptown (511 Queen Anne Avenue N) and Regal Meridian 16 (1501 7th Avenue)
Director: Ava DuVernay
Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Run Time: 128 mins
Release Year: 2014
Country Of Origin: USA