Selma: A Review

By Kunle Olulode


The conflict at the heart of the Selma to Montgomery protest marches in March 1965 stands as one of the critical phases in defining the direction of the Civil Rights movement.  One year after the passage of the Civil Rights Act the campaign entered a new chapter encased in an ongoing intellectual and tactical debate on the effectiveness of non – violent passive resistance in the face of unmitigated regional state violence.  Selma of 1965 was a by-word for oppression, racism and intransigence.  



The civil rights campaigners driven forward by church and community groups, trade unions, peaceniks and at its head Martin Luther King. This movement realised it was one thing have a civil rights on paper, but there needed to be an altogether different set of requirements put in place  to exercise civil rights. In this instance, the right to vote in the southern states of America.    


Several years in the making, this new British- Oprah Winfrey backed production,  is skilfully directed by rising star Ava DuVernay and contains a number of outstanding performances from an impressive British cast led by David Oyelowo who gives us one of the most compelling portrayals of his acting career  in the lead role. It’s hard to believe he was once one of the Brit boys from BBC’s Spooks.  Credit also has to be given to Tom Wilkinson as a vacillating LB Johnson, JF Kennedy’s post assassination replacement and Carmen Ejogo, whose visual resemblance to the young Coretta Scott King is alarmingly accurate.   


This bloody and violent chapter in America history was last was presented on film in 1999 by Disney. They supplied Charles Burnett with the cash to make the film ‘Selma Lord Selma’. A survey of the subject as seen through the eyes of a child.  


As reported previously by V4CE,  there are no Oscar nominations for Selma. It would appear after last year’s success of ‘12 Years a Slave’ the American film establishment have decided to put their foot down against any further anglo intrusion.  However petty transatlantic jealousy cannot excuse the BAFTA’s huge oversight. But even stranger, this year not a single black performer has been nominated for any of the 62 Screen Actor Guild Awards despite a number of outstanding performances from black actors two of which are in this film!!  


The difference in approach between King and Malcolm X’s post Nation of Islam movement, though highlighted, isn’t explored in any great depth.  This film is very much a take on the pressures of leadership and the tensions that enveloped King and his co-leaders in sticking to a strategy of absolute passive resistance when all around them were Billy-clubs, guns and horsewhips’. As such these are the kind of pressures that could be relevant to any form of political campaigning. When do you push ahead, bang fists on tables and when do you sit down and compromise? A young pre Black Power Stokely Carmichael flashes on to the screen and one point and you are reminded of just how wide the range of black political leaders in America involved in civil rights protests.  



However, it is the student leader James Forman of the  Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), played by Trai Byers, who best captures  the essence of the frustrated 1960 black frustrated youth. These are the young men and women who would only months after Selma begin to break away from the ethos of non-violence to lay the foundations of an emerging Black Power Movement alongside Carmichael.  



It has to be said, while the depiction of red –neck racists comes across as more contrived than threatening there’s still lots here that evokes shock and will move you. The film is a worthy tribute to Kings legacy. It shows him to be a much more complex and rounded individual than he is often seen to be both as a leader and strategist. Finally, it’s also a reminder – if any were needed- that campaigning at a street level is often more important in shaping what goes on in the boardroom than people can see