At a time when police brutality against black Americans is making headlines, the feature film Selma highlights and commemorates the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” one of the most violent incidents of police abuse of power during the entire Civil Rights movement. Director Ava DuVernay recreates the vicious, infamous March 7, 1965 charge by Alabama police on horseback and foot against unarmed citizens peacefully protesting on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
While Americans are accustomed to the lauding of Dr. Martin Luther King as a prophetic visionary of immense oratorical gifts, actor David Oyelowo (2013’s The Butler, 2012’s Lincoln) also depicts King as a brilliant organizer and strategist, a Napoleon of nonviolent tactics. The British-born Oyelowo, who has been nominated for a Best Actor Golden Globe, leads a cast that includes Oprah Winfrey as would-be voter Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah’s Harpo Films co-produced the two hour-plus epic), Dylan Baker as a reptilian J. Edgar Hoover, Wendell Pierce of HBO’s Treme as Rev. Hosea Williams, Cuba Gooding Jr. as attorney Fred Gray, Stephen James as Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chairman John Lewis, Common (his song “Glory” is also Golden Globe-nominated) as James Bevel, Dear White People star Tessa Thompson as SNCC and CORE member Diane Nash, and many others.
In an Oscar-worthy performance, London-born Carmen Ejogo––who’d starred in the 2000 made-for-TV-movie Sally Hemmings: An American Scandal––reprises her role as Coretta Scott King, whom Ejogo first depicted in the 2001 TV movie Boycott. Selma reveals the strains that the movement and FBI’s malicious COINTELPRO counterintelligence program placed on the Kings’ marriage, and how commitment to the cause united the husband and wife team, with Coretta taking a leading role in the movement against American apartheid.
One of the veteran La-La-Land leftists, Martin Sheen––who has been arrested sixty-plus times due to his activism––co-stars in a brief yet pivotal role.
“The name evokes its place in history,” the co-star of 1979’s Apocalypse Now and TV’s long-running The West Wing, noted in an interview with The Progressive. “The march on Selma was probably the greatest force at the time that forged the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It may be one of Pres. Johnson’s [Tom Wilkinson] greatest achievements, as well as Rev. King’s, who began the initiative to focus on Selma, Alabama, because of the disparity in the number of Black registered voters––I think 2 percent in the state. The focus on bringing national attention to Selma through nonviolent civil disobedience and the inevitable march from Selma to Montgomery is what focused the country on just how entrenched racism and segregation was in a great many parts of the country, specifically in Alabama.”
Sheen described the historical role his character, Federal Judge Frank Minis Johnson, played in the events dramatized in Selma. “Mind you, he was a Federal judge. The hearing on the [second Edmund Pettus Bridge] march was held in Montgomery in his courtroom. [Alabama] Governor Wallace [portrayed by a nasty, scheming Tim Roth] had forbidden the march with a legal writ and the judge said he would not overrule it without a hearing. He was a by-the-book, honest, decent man. He knew that if he didn’t have a hearing it could be overturned on his opinion. So he needed to have a hearing.
“And he asked the Southern Christian Leadership Conference not to march on that Tuesday. You know, the police riot occurred on a Sunday, March 7; they were planning to march again on Tuesday after that and that’s when Rev. King came and led the march and knelt down on the bridge because he feared it was a trap. Judge Johnson asked the Southern Christian Leadership Conference not to do that march and was disappointed that they did it. Because he cleared his calendar for a hearing. And about 48 hours later they had the hearing and he ruled in their favor. He heard both sides, both litigants came into the court and he issued his ruling––that the march was legal and constitutional. He overruled Wallace and said that the marchers were guaranteed the rights of free speech and assembly.”
Selma includes a great scene with sharp dialogue by screenwriter Paul Webb wherein Lyndon B. Johnson tangles with his fellow Southerner Wallace at the White House. And although President Johnson initially resisted King’s insistence to move forward with enfranchising African Americans in the segregated South, the pressure brought to bear on him by the unstoppable movement proved to be irresistible, and Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law on August 6, 1965. This was almost exactly five months to the day after Bloody Sunday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Among other things, Selma shows how excessive use of police force can affect and galvanize a cause, as well as lead to blowback. The savagery of cattle prod-bearing Sheriff Jim Clark’s (Stan Houston) forces against peaceable, unarmed marchers was televised across America, causing widespread revulsion and outrage. Selma also demonstrates how what Jack London called “The Iron Heel” of the state can trigger blowback: After first being denied the right to vote by a racist registrar and then beaten by police, Oprah’s character Annie Lee Cooper forsakes King’s Gandhian nonviolence and strikes back.
Last year, 12 Years a Slave won the Best Picture Academy Award, while earlier this year lefty films like Cesar Chavez, Dear White People and Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour have been released. Although the Oscar nominations haven’t been announced yet, in addition to Oyelowo, DuVernay is nommed for the Best Director Golden Globe, while Selma is up for the Best Picture Golden Globe and scored AFI’s Movie of the Year Award. Like Sherman through Georgia, Selma continues a march of progressive films.
Selma goes into limited theatrical release on Christmas Day and opens wide Jan. 9.
Ed Rampell, The Progressive’s man in Hollywood, co-authored The Hawaii Movie and Television Book. To read more on Selma and other landmarks in civil rights history, check out Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall, available for Kindle and NOOK among our e-books.