It’s widely known that Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. Although not everyone knows King’s entire speech, “I have a dream” has become synonymous with his name. ‘Selma’ pinpoints King’s involvement with the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches and offers the audience a more detailed view into the movement that he was a part of, specifically his peaceful campaigns to secure equal voting rights for the black community in Alabama.
Director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb succeed in showing King as a true human rights activist, with an emphasis on ‘human’. King is definitely an important figure and deserves his place on a pedestal in American history; however it can be easy to forget that King himself was just an ordinary man. British actor David Oyelowo (Interstellar, A Most Violent Year) skillfully takes us through King’s marital and family struggles as well as the conflicts he has with his brothers and sisters in the movement – all while fighting relentlessly for equality. If anything, Oyelowo’s portrayal makes King more of a hero by humanising him. Oyelowo’s seven-year campaign for both the film and the role shows the impact that King had, not just on Americans but on other nationalities too. In addition to this, film producer and actress Oprah Winfrey – who doesn’t have much screen time but is sure to have shelled big bucks behind the scenes – effectively shows us the barriers set up in place for African-Americans in the 60s. Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper near the beginning of the film shows the hoops and hurdles that African-Americans would have to go through in order to try and register to vote. But it’s James Reeb (Jeremy Strong) and Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) who really show us the brutality of the time. These two fairly minor characters spark a major change in the film and in history.
A difficult aspect in making a film such as ‘Selma’ is historical accuracy. DuVernay already responded to backlash saying ‘it’s not a documentary. I’m not a historian. I’m a storyteller.’ DuVernay is successful in telling her version of events, she rewrote many of King’s speeches due to another studio having the rights to his real speeches and King’s relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) is rewritten in the film for dramatic effect (however this need not have happened with antagonist George Wallace (Tim Roth) being villain enough in Selma). Nevertheless, the message of King fighting oppression in the American 60s is bold. Even as a Hollywood dramatisation, the reality of the situation hits home for the audience, knowing events such as ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1965 actually happened.
With films such as 12 Years a Slave and Lee Daniels’ The Butler detailing the harassment of African-Americans in history, many question why said films are being made. Although Selma does tell a dramatised story, it is still a brief glimpse into the past, a reference to things that have happened and, in some places, were seen as acceptable. Selma has a place in the cinema for inciting an interest in Martin Luther King and showing a modern day audience the effort that was put in to fight for equality and the extreme violence it was met with. With the 50th anniversary of the marches this year, it’s important to notice how relevant Selma is with police brutality being a hot topic in the news. For better or for worse, King’s teachings are as appropriate today as they were fifty years ago.