Martin Luther King Jr. is probably one of the most prolific names of the 20th century, a title he earned –quite literally- through blood, sweat, and tears. Dr. King was a man who saw and experienced some of the worst hatred this country had to offer and stood up to take it on. In doing so, he inspired a nation and changed the way we looked at civil rights forever. Even though Dr. King was murdered in 1968, his legacy remains and continues to inspire millions of people across the world.
So it is somewhat odd that no major film depicting Dr. King’s work has been made until now. Thankfully, not only does Selma deliver a masterpiece of a film, but also delivers a powerful message to today’s audiences of what we have left behind, and how far we still need to go.
Prolific figures, powerful acting
Across the board, Selma’s performances are critically astounding, particularly that of David Oyelowo, who portrays Dr. King himself. Armed with a calm manner that compliments his passionate oratory, Oyelowo manages to portray the powerful man who helped shape the future as well as the man that faced personal struggles and doubts. The film reminds viewers that King was still a man with basic human struggles, helping to take away some of the aura that makes his legacy somewhat unapproachable.
Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson gives an intimidating performance, portraying the former President as a political bully. Perhaps not the most historically accurate rendition of the character (King and Johnson had differences but reportedly had a good relationship), but a very convincing one.
Other notable performances are found throughout the film, such as Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, Tim Roth as George Wallace, and even Oprah Winfrey and Cuba Gooding Jr. in small roles.
Emotional resonance and the challenges it brings
The film spares little in its brutal depiction of racial violence and the hatred all of those who stood with King endured. The film does an excellent job portraying African-American suffering endured in those times, but takes care to remind viewers that white men and women who joined with King also experienced many acts of violence and hatred, such as the deaths of James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo. The film takes great care to make the violence and outright villainy these brave men and women faced feel very real.
The sound of soul
Though not a major component, the sound and songs featured in Selma compliment the film’s nature and the period of the events. With the strums of a guitar and a lovely southern twang, Selma’s score and accompanying songs add a feeling of authenticity, reflecting the moods and times of the Civil Rights Movement.
“I have a dream that… the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day… little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
One of the most famous speeches in history, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke those words on August 28th, 1963 in Washington DC. He saw a future where racism did not exist, where a unified people, a unified humanity, had left that ugly history behind.
However, it’s not hard to see that King’s dream is still a long time in coming. The old biases, hatreds, and derision we have towards each other are habits that die hard, and for some they will not go away with time. Sixty years may have passed, but the death of racism still has not come.
But, as the lives of Reeb and Liuzzo have shown us, that future is possible, one that we must claim ourselves. Selma shows the ugly past of racism in America, the failings of our present, but reminds its viewers of the possibilities of our future. If men and women of all colors can stand together in the face of injustice, of racism and oppression during the momentous days of the 1960’s, then surely we can stand together now, and make Dr. King’s dream come true.