by Nicky Gionis. This article was originally published 2/16/22.
Selma is a 2014 biopic of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. which follows the fight to pass the Voting Rights Act in 1965. It shows both the public and private struggles of MLK as he and his wife deal with Lyndon Johnson’s reluctance to pass the bill, white supremacists and harsh violence, division within the Civil Rights Movement, and their marital issues.
It is directed by Ava DuVernay, the first Black woman to direct a film with a Best Picture nomination. She is a leader in the fight to bring more diversity into Hollywood, a major issue in the film making industry.
Selma is the first major biopic of Martin Luther King. This is likely because he is such a difficult topic to adapt. No one wants to get such an iconic and important figure wrong. It is hard to highlight the importance of MLK while still making him seem human and relatable, its tough to address his flaws and not depict him as a perfect being. This is something that Selma and David Oyelowo, the actor who played Dr. King, executed well as the character seemed to be an accurate depiction of the man.
Selma does a great job of showing not just the public image of King, a confident and righteous leader, but also depicting his private side, a self-doubting, worried man who struggles with his personal life. David Oyelowo humanizes the character while still maintaining his public persona and importance to the Civil Rights Movement and countless people.
This contrast of public and private lives is something that is shown a lot in the film, with more secret, intimate scenes taking place at night and public scenes taking place during the day. This public and private, dark and light treatment isn’t just true for Dr. King’s story, but for the white supremacist story as well. Their harassment, mistreatment, and violence often takes place in broad daylight, showing they are not hiding their hate, but acting on it with the public knowing about it. Throughout the movie, there are also racist acts of violence that occur more in private, in the dark, such as an unarmed Black man being shot by police or a white pastor being beaten to death, both of which happened at night. But the climactic Bloody Sunday scene, the thing that really pushed the public to act, takes place in broad daylight in front of the press. Bloody Sunday is the day protesters were attacked, beaten, tear-gassed and killed by law enforcement - while news cameras were rolling - as they crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
Some critics point out historical inaccuracies in the film’s timeline, such as the Baptist Street Church Bombing actually taking place a year before King received the Nobel Peace Prize in the beginning of the movie. However, it is important to note that Selma is an historical drama whose main goal is to convince the audience of the director’s perspective. Minor historical inaccuracies are the sacrifice for making a good movie with an important message for its audience. Selma accomplishes what it sets out to do and that is the most important thing.
Selma is a movie that I recommend my generation to watch. It encapsulates how much effort and sacrifice it took to accomplish a goal that should never have had to been fought for. It shows what MLK did for this country and the African American community while also showing his complications that every human has. It describes an issue that is still ever present in our society today and could inspire our generation to continue the fight so many have struggled for.
Available to check out at your local DC Public Library.