Racism was alive and well in 1964, and it is foolish to suggest that it has disappeared today. Like rats in a sewer, it hides in order to spread its venom.
With all due respect to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, this year’s Oscar for Best Picture should come down to either Birdman, The Imitation Game or Selma. Stunningly presented by first-time Director Ava DuVarnay, Selma recreates a moment of our recent history that reverberates through American society to this very day.
Taking place in Selma, Alabama, in 1964, Ms. DuVarnay exposes a Southern culture that viewed black Americans not as second class citizens, but not as citizens at all. From Alabama Governor Wallace (Tim Roth) down to the brutish Selma Sheriff Jim Clark (Sam Houston), discrimination was alive and well. While slavery may have been outlawed less than 100 years earlier, racist anger and resentment was constantly stoked in Southern white communities.
Into this cauldron marched Martin Luther King, here played magnificently by British actor David Oyelowo. Dr. King, then living with his wife Coretta (Carmel Ejogo) in Atlanta, concluded that a protest march in Selma was the only avenue to force President Johnson to sponsor a Voting Rights Act that would have allowed blacks to vote in the South. Repeatedly denied the ability to register, which was a requirement to serve on juries, the white power structure in the South insured their own position of complete dominance.
The strength of the film flows from Dr. King’s relationship with his associates, his wife and President Johnson. Tom Wilkinson, playing President Johnson, adds to a long, distinguished career. Though the film has been criticized for improperly portraying the role of President Johnson at that time, I think those critics missed the point. President Johnson had already helped pass the Civil Rights Act, and he would soon make sure that the Voting Rights Act became law. Right or wrong, he wanted Dr. King to calm down and hold off his march, as he feared that our country danced on the edge of a second Civil War.
On the other hand, Dr. King would not, and could not, accept no as an answer, even coming from an American president. The movie begins with a chilling portrayal of the four young girls killed after a church in Birmingham was bombed on September 15, 1963, and Dr. King justifiably could not wait for possible future government action with those dead little girls dominating his thoughts.
There are a lot of reasons to hold J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) in contempt, none more so than the fact that his office was secretly wiretapping all of Dr. King’s phone calls. In the process, Mr. Hoover became aware of Dr. King’s unfortunate affairs with other women, and the FBI soon confirmed this to Coretta with the hope that this would keep him at home. While their marriage was obviously strained, the performances of Ms. Ejobo and Mr. Oyelowo allowed you inside their home where a wounded couple rallied to each other’s side for the greater good.
Ironically, much of the nation rallied behind Dr. King following the appalling newscasts showing the brutal beatings of the Selma marchers by armed white State Troopers. Suddenly, Dr. King’s next march became integrated with white citizens from around the country joining his cause. It was a magical moment that changed the course of our history.
Without giving anything away, the actions of the Ku Klux Klan did not end with Dr. King’s march from Selma to Birmingham. A young white supporter of Dr. King was brutally shot and killed as she was transporting some black marchers back home. Is it really any surprise that States in the Antebellum South continue to adamantly oppose our first black President?