January 18, 2015 -- This is about civil rights leader Martin Luther King and the famous protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. I was somewhat familiar with the story, but there were some details about the march itself that surprised me.
The backdrop to the march includes a re-enactment of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, an act of white supremacist terrorism that resulted in the death of four young girls. The bombing, and other acts of terrorism against blacks and others in the civil rights movement, put pressure on leaders like King (played by David Oyelowo of “Interstellar”) and their followers to do something.
Much of the film involves discussions between King and other civil rights leaders, and with politicians, including President Lyndon Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson of “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” While the civil rights movement had many goals, King argues in the film, the most basic is the right to vote. Without the right to vote, blacks can't serve on juries. They become victims of the police and the courts. Denial of the right to vote is demonstrated in the film by none other than Oprah Winfrey (a producer of this film) who plays civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper.
King decides to operate out of Selma since it has a good civil rights organization in place. King, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, does have his differences with local members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced snick) but eventually the success of his confrontational tactics win them over. King also has problems with his wife, Coretta (played by Carmen Ejogo, who also portrayed Coretta Scott King in the 2001 film “Boycott”). Coretta objects to her husband's affairs with other women, the amount of time he is gone from the home and the risks he takes with his life).
There is a good deal of political maneuvering before the march between King and Johnson and between Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth of “The Incredible Hulk”) and Johnson. Oddly, four of the main characters, King, his wife, President Johnson and Governor Wallace, are all played by actors from England. There are, I believe, actors born in America who might be able to play these roles with a bit more authenticity. I thought Oyelowo and Ejogo gave excellent, convincing performances, but Roth and Wilkinson seemed really out of place in this film. For one thing, neither of them looks the part. I knew they aren't Americans and that bugged me.
The brutal attack on the marchers by police on March 7, 1965, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge (named after a former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon) over Alabama River is elaborately staged with police mounted on horses and on foot attacking marchers with billy clubs. The “Bloody Sunday” attack is well-known, but I did not know the march to Montgomery from Selma actually was begun three times before it was finished. A court battle over the right to make the march is also depicted.
Oyelowo gives a masterful performance as King, including some great speeches. He deserved an Academy Award acting nomination in a year when every acting nomination went to white people. This film also got attacked in typical Academy Award political style for historical inaccuracy. True, it fudged some facts, but so did “American Sniper,” and you don't hear any complaints about that, so what's the real color of this attack? There isn't a lot of substance to the attack, but since most of the voters are white, this puts it out of the running for the Best Picture award.
While it won't make my top 10 list for the year, it is a good film, and it deserved more than the two Oscar nominations it got. It is a moving and well-meaning film that never quite manages the greatness one expects, given its soaring subject material. This film rates a B.
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