It’s impossible to watch “Selma” in America today and not feel confronted by the striking parallels to recent turmoil.
The Eric Garner and Michael Brown grand jury decisions have brought the issue of race back into the spotlight, and the calculated response and protest by unhappy American people harkens back to Martin Luther King Jr.’s crusade for civil rights.
“Selma” is not your typical biopic: We don’t see Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth, we don’t see his death, and we don’t get very much in between. What we do get is a focused look at one key event that changed the course of the country for the better — the monumental Civil Rights March in Selma, Alabama that led to national attention and widespread outrage for the South’s ‘desegregated in name only’ approach and systematic opression of people of colour.
There are scenes throughout “Selma” — people walking in the streets, demanding justice — that parallel news coverage from the past month. Many of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speeches are depicted in the film, and each sentiment is more strikingly relevant than the last.
The basic notion that all of the cops in the movie are white and any threat of violence to white people seem to be valued more than excessive force against blacks evokes the deaths of Gordon and Brown after aggressive police responses. It brings certain numbers to mind, such as how Ferguson is 60% black, the police force is 94% white, and that 93% of Ferguson arrests in 2013 were people of colour.
One of the most memorable scenes is when protesters (without MLK Jr.) descend upon the bridge towards Selma and are accosted by ruthless, angry white southern police officers as well as a slew of spectators eagerly cheering them on. This scene depicts a watershed moment and major turning point in the movement, as news cameras and photographers were able to bring the issue into the homes of Americans nationwide. Martin Luther King’s comments following the first march on the bridge was a national call-to-arms for people of all races.
Countless African-Americans are beaten and a few killed by the police during the marches, and the film does not shy away from the sheer brutality that was on display during this era. When King notes that none of the white police officers were convicted or tried for their awful crimes, more connections to the present are revealed and it’s hard to swallow.
The march on Selma itself is emblematic of the larger problem we still face today. While blatant beatings orchestrated by law enforcement in broad daylight may be a thing of the past, the protests in Ferguson (and to a lesser extent those breaking out across the nation) and the overzealous militarised response are not far off. Sure, you can spin it and put the blame on the small subsection of protesters who were looting and causing a ruckus, but there were thousands protesting peacefully who were tear-gassed all the same. The parallels to the “hands up, don’t shoot” movement are striking and shocking.
David Oyelowo plays MLK Jr. with such a dignified grace and commanding presence that at times it’s hard to believe you’re not watching footage of the man himself. It’s a subtle performance in which he says just as much with his eyes and demeanor than he does with words, and it’s one of the year’s best — even in a year of many wonderful performances.
“Selma” is a timely, important and magnificent film that proves no matter how far we’ve come towards equality in America, we still have a long way to go.
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