The ink on the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act had scarcely dried when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began pressing then-President Lyndon Johnson to vigorously enforce long-won voting rights.
Depending on the historian, LBJ demurred because he either genuinely opposed stepping into such local matters or because he already had too much on his plate — Johnson preferred to focus on his War on Poverty while also committing troops to a grueling ground war in Vietnam.
The Oprah Winfrey-produced drama, “Selma,” chronicles MLK’s efforts to bring awareness to the voting challenges of the time by marching from the titular small town to the Alabama state capital.
Though controversial in its historic license (in the film Johnson employs J. Edgar Hoover to expose King’s infidelities and Malcolm X’s role is ambiguous), “Selma” is a well-told chapter in our national evolution towards social parity.
First time screenwriter Paul Webb paints a nuanced King, here a strategist parlaying the predictable racist reaction popular under Democrat Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) for the cameras in order to keep the issue on the front pages. Director Ava DuVernay uncomfortably focuses on King’s unflinching face as the iconic civil rights leader allows the brutal confrontations to play out for a greater good.
The film’s depiction of humiliation and brutality are difficult to watch at times — an early church bombing nearly rocked me out of my seat — but help frame the era for those far removed from it today.
Perhaps most remarkable was the demonstration of restraint that protesters exercised; a hallmark of King’s movement was to maintain dignity in even the most detestable conditions inflicted on him and his followers.
Those nonviolent methods with King’s articulation and perseverance proved persuasive and actor David Oyelowo (“The Butler”) magnificently brings the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s short but purposeful life alive.
Supporters are pro forma — Oprah as Annie Lee Cooper, Cuba Gooding, Jr. as lawyer Fred Gray, Martin Sheen as Judge Johnson, even the usually wonderful Tom Wilkinson as King’s foil LBJ, for instance, lack depth. But that’s forgivable, “Selma” is, after all, about King and the injustice he strove to expose.
“The wrongs are enormous,” Sheen says, overturning Gov. Wallace’s prohibition on the march which ultimately prevailed.
Indeed they were and that makes “Selma,” which highlights a pivotal episode in the long game of equality, essential.
Med City Movie Guys Rating: 4 Honks
Films that got Civil Rights right
For some, the civil rights era represents something experienced personally, for others of successive generations it’s a chapter enshrined in history books studied apart. But that struggle did not exist in a vacuum. Interwoven was a major war, political assassinations, the space program and host of other things. Thus, while many films use the era as a backdrop, few focus solely on the struggle. Here are a few of the best that do.
Mississippi Burning (1988) Brilliantly executed crime drama based loosely on the 1964 FBI investigation of missing civil rights workers. Stars Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman. Critically acclaimed and a personal favorite.
Malcolm X (1992) At the risk of sounding pretentious about director Spike Lee’s adaptation of Malcolm X’s autobiography, the book, coauthored by Alex Haley (Roots), was much better. Malcolm X, of course, was the anti-MLK, advocating for change “by any means necessary.” His speeches were compelling calls to action and perhaps only Denzel Washington could do justice to the dynamic militant leader of the Nation of Islam.
In the Heat of the Night (1967) Sparta, Mississippi, didn’t get the memo about the whole Civil Rights thing, so when a murder is discovered there, they pin it on the first black guy they find. In this case that’s visiting Philadelphian Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), who happens to be a very adept detective whose expertise locals are loathe to accept. Won five Academy Awards.
The Help (2011) Lighter fare arguably more about class than race. Emma Stone returns to 1963 Mississippi to write a book chronicling the lives of “the help.” Charming and entertaining, will leave you more sensitized to those whose lives intersect with ours.