I saw the movie Selma at the CAA screening room just 30 minutes after hearing the horrific Ferguson, Mo. verdict, and watched the powerful, passionate film through tears of rage and shame. The lead actor, David Oyelowe, who plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the film, introduced it with a brief comment about the verdict and how things have not changed that much since the events in the film were unveiled. That same day President Obama said pretty much the same thing as he awarded the Presidential Medals of Freedom to, among others, the three civil rights workers killed in the Freedom Summer of 1964. The film, directed by publicist-turned-director Ava DuVernay and written by her and Pau Webb, details the March 1965 March from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery, to fight the terribly restrictive voting rules for blacks in the South. But it is not a documentary, certainly not, it is a deeply-felt feature drama of the conflict between Dr. King and the new President, Lyndon B. Johnson (played ably by Tom Wllkenson). Oprah Winfrey was one of the four exec producers of the film and, much to my pleasant surprise, plays a significant role in the film as a 54-year old woman named Annie Lee Cooper who fights with Sheriff Clark to register to vote and is savagely beaten as a result. It was certainly the finest acting performance I have yet seen from Oprah, even surpassing that in Lee Daniel's The Butler. (Daniels was supposed to direct this film at one time.) Oprah was brought into the project by Oyelowo, the 38-year old British-born actor who played her son in the Butler. You can be sure that it was Oprah who, with her clout, carried it across the finish line to being filmed.
The film opens by cutting between King receiving the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize and the four doomed little Alabama black girls dressed in their Sunday best parading down the stairs of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church on Sept. 15, 1963, before a Ku Klux Klan-planted bomb tears up the building and kills the girls. The subsequent Selma march was led by Dr. King, along with James Bevel, Hosea Williams and John Lewis of SCLC. A stunning Carmen Ejoga plays Coretta Scott King. Tim Roth plays a slimy Governor George Wallace. Lorraine Toussaint portrays Amelia Boynton Robinson, who was very active in the Selma movement and was the first African-American woman in Alabama to run for Congress. There is one scene with singer Ledisi playing Mahalia Jackson, a friend of King's who sings a hymn one night on the phone to encourage him in a bleak moment. And there is a portrayal by Dylan Baker of an evil FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who carried on extensive investigations of King and his associates. They partially filmed it in Atlanta, Georgia, and shot in the actual location of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, with a final shot at the state capital. Jazz musician Jason Moran composed the music for the film and Bradford Young was the cinematographer. The $20 million picture was financed by Pathe UK, along with Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment and Oprah's Harpo Productions. The four producers are Christian Colson, Oprah, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner. Bravo to them. Paramount is distributing it in the U.S. and Canada beginning on Christmas Day.
I just read a comment by director DuVernay on Indiewire, who said her movie is the same exact story as Ferguson. "An unarmed black citizen is assaulted with unreasonable force and fatal gunfire by a non-black person who is sworn to serve and protect them. A small town that is already fractured by unequal representation in local government and law enforcement begins to crack under the pressure. People of color, the oppressed, take to the street to make their voices heard. The powers-that-be seek to extinguish those voices with brute militarized force and disregard for constitutional rights. That was Selma 1965. That's Ferguson right now." I saw her tell that her father is from Lowndes County, where the Selma march occurred, and she says, "I didn't have to research what kind of place this is, the people I love most in the world live in that part of the country." She mentions that the KKK had snipers sitting in the trees alongside the march from Selma to Montgomery (where Gov. Wallace would not let King onto the steps of the capital.) But King will not be denied: "We are here and we ain't gonna let nobody turn us around. There's a new energy that's stronger than the strongest opposition." It is ironic that the U.S. Supreme Court is currently reviewing whether redistricting in Alabama based on the Voting Rights Act (of 1965) unfairly impedes black candidates. Cnsideringt the conservative bent of this court, I am not sanguine about the verdict.
Yes, I am reminded of Martin Luther King's statement that 'only love can eradicate hate.' Last night I watched Angelina Jolie's powerful movie, Unbroken, which ended with the same message,...love your enemy and forgive them; that is the Godly way. I'm not so sure anymore that I buy that 'truth' to such a great extent....but that's a subject for another Huffington column. The Martin Luher King, Jr depicted in SELMA is a real man, with flaws and fallacies. There is an intense scene where Coretta confronts him with suspected infidelities furnished to her by Hoover's FBI. But he is Godly in the best, real sense of the word, a knowing man who sees all sides of the argument and yet is unrelenting in his belief in peaceful passive resistance. As opposed to President Johnson, who wants to make slower, steady progress in the unruly bigoted South. King is the leader of a 'band of brothers' with many different opinions. I love seeing Stephan James playing Rep. John Lewis, one of my heroes whom I see regularly on the "Morning Joe" talk show. We see the young Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, and even get a moment with Malcolm X (played by Nigel Thatch) a few weeks before his assassination. Interestingly, the King estate did not give them permission to use his actual speeches. And though she reshaped the finished script extensively, contractual obligations to the original writer prevent Ava from getting a screenplay credit. Quel dommage.
As the producer of two films about the black experience, beginning with the first studio picture ever to feature two black leads, Sidney Poitier and Abbey Lincoln in "For Love of Ivy," and then the long-gestating (13 years) Billie Holiday film, Lady Sings the Blues," with Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor, I am not in unfamiliar territory with SELMA. But I know that I will be campaigning for Ava DuVernay to be the first black woman director to be nominated for an Oscar..,,and would be thrilled if she won.. As we all win from the making of this sensational fim.
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