DM Haight

 

There a few insights into the history of the Civil Rights Movement that can detail exactly how calculated some moves were. In our history classes we get a glazed over, donut-style tidbit of sugar-coated reality. What we don’t see are the burns, scars, bruises, and lives left in the wake of that tidbit. However, Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay and written Paul Webb, tells the story of how the scars were earned and how calculated earning those scars actually was.

Selma follows the events leading up to the historic 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, following characters such as President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), Governor Wallace (Tim Roth), and the planning committee of Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the man himself, Dr. King (David Oyelowo).  The air set is one of a borderline sepia tone. We won’t forget that this is taking place in the past. The world is muted, as if waiting for the powers at large to make a move, all while the town of Selma, the protesters, and the rest of the US watches Dr. King try to diplomatically approach the president, Selma’s Sheriff, and the town’s more anxious radicals, who are more in tune with the sentiments of Malcom X, and believe the real way to make yourself hear is by knocking the eardrum of the person you’re battling.

What makes this film so powerful, however, is its characters. We know the people involved, the everyday heroes, the legends of the movement, and martyrs, but for the first time we see them treated as human subjects instead of saints. King is often broken, tired, and fighting with his moral obligation to finish the movement he started, forcing people into positions where he knows the receiving end is only violent prejudice. Johnson is torn politically, as he finds himself attempting to quell the voices of the south and of King, in favor of larger, politically more beneficial bills. And we see the protesters. Now those are the real heroes of this film—the bright stars who seem to fade into the background and make up the reality comprised of fiction. We see a number of character—historic characters, mind you—who never speak, or have few lines, but who leave us with an incredible anchor of reality. Subjects such as Viola Liuzzo, who has no lines in the film, but we see being very active in the set up to the protest. She’s one the heroes left out of the history books. Her fate has an impact you never knew it could have. And she is but one such character in a cast of characters like herself.

The story is driven by the little interactions, leading to the larger moments that make up the history we know: the speeches, the beatings, the jailings, the sit ins, the marches, the shootings, the assassinations, and the victories. The film as a whole is a humbling piece at its core, reminding us that our heroes were people. We have to give Paul Webb a nod for creating human characters in a time when the invincible hero is the only one that wins. Webb’s words of people behind closed doors builds the world of Selma into a reflection of the reality, instead of a reimagining. Obviously there are pieces of fiction throughout the film, but the beauty of the reality is what shines through. Too long we have been blinded with simple facts of these men and women who defined a generation not two generations ago; and finally we have a film that can mirror the true horrors and triumphs that transpired.

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