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December 25, 2014

Fifty years ago this coming March, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led a march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery to protest discriminatory practices in voting rights for the mostly black citizens of Selma. The road was brutal, and much longer than the 54 miles that US route 80 runs on the map. It’s a story that deserves to live larger in our national memory, and Ava DuVernay couldn’t have picked a better time to bring out her new film, Selma.

Naturally, the story focuses on King (David Oyelowo), but it hardly starts or stops with him. Yes, he’s the one who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and can get a personal audience with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who already used much of his political capital passing the Civil Rights Act. But it’s the activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who had been laying the groundwork, trying to register voters for two years already; activists like James Forman (Trai Byers) and John Lewis (Stephan James) — yes that John Lewis (D-GA). And it’s the people of Selma, like Annie Lee Cooper (producer Oprah Winfrey), Amelia Boynton Robinson (Lorraine Toussaint), and Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), who would bear the brunt of the violent response.

But King and his inner circle — Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), James Bevel (Common), Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), Andrew Young (Andre Holland), James Orange (Omar Dorsey) — took risks of their own. DuVernay is careful to take the time to examine the strain King’s activism took on his marriage to Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo).

A lot went on in Selma those first months of 1965. DuVernay works wonders to fit it in, but at times it feels rushed, and it can sometimes be difficult to tell just how much time has passed between two events. The likes of Alabama Governor George “Segregation Forever” Wallace (Tim Roth) and Department of Public Safety Director Al Lingo (Stephen Root) certainly sowed the wind, but did what they reapt feel like such a whirlwind in Selma?

Whether or not it happened so fast, I can easily imagine that it felt uneasy and off-balance in Selma during those months. What’s more, we have the benefit of hindsight; we know that the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, and so for all the moment-to-moment dread we understand that the people of Selma were on the verge of winning a huge and important victory. The air is heavy with the sense that King is right when he preaches at the end, “How Long, Not Long”.

And yet it’s all too easy to believe that it really wouldn’t be long. Yes, the Voting Rights Act passed, and black citizens across the south were allowed into the ballot box. But fifty years later a conservative judiciary has begun to dismantle its provisions, and discriminatory practices are creeping back in. Police forces pick up surplus military gear and define themselves as “at war” against the people they were sworn to protect.

Yet again, the past is not even past; we’re still tangled up in the lines that connect us to our shocking history. The lines run straight from Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo and Timothy Loehmann and Johannes Mehserle back to James Bonard Fowler, parallel to those from Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Oscar Grant back to Jimmie Lee Jackson. They run from George Zimmerman back to the same sort of murderous cowards who beat in the Rev. James Reeb’s head. They tie the protestors blocking streets and malls and highways in New York City and Minneapolis and Washington D.C. back to those who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 21, 1965, and the protestors in Ferguson, Missouri back even further to those who were violently turned back into Selma on Bloody Sunday.

Watching Selma play out against this backdrop can be disheartening, to see how little has really changed over the last five decades. It rips the scabs off old wounds that we would rather pretend have healed, reminding us how ugly and brutal the struggle has always been. But it also reminds us that we beat them once; all it takes is the will to do it again.

Update: When I first wrote this review, I was unaware that Ava DuVernay had made extensive, uncredited rewrites to the original script; I have adjusted a line giving more credit to her writing accordingly.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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