The Power of ‘Selma’

Background left to right: Tessa Thompson plays Diane Nash, Omar Dorsey plays James Orange, Colman Domingo plays Ralph Abernathy, David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., André Holland plays Andrew Young, Corey Reynolds plays Rev. C.T. Vivian, and Lorraine Toussaint plays Amelia Boynton in SELMA, from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films.
Background left to right: Tessa Thompson plays Diane Nash, Omar Dorsey plays James Orange, Colman Domingo plays Ralph Abernathy, David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., André Holland plays Andrew Young, Corey Reynolds plays Rev. C.T. Vivian, and Lorraine Toussaint plays Amelia Boynton in SELMA, from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films.
Background left to right: Tessa Thompson plays Diane Nash, Omar Dorsey plays James Orange, Colman Domingo plays Ralph Abernathy, David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., André Holland plays Andrew Young, Corey Reynolds plays Rev. C.T. Vivian, and Lorraine Toussaint plays Amelia Boynton in SELMA, from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films.

The beauty of Paramount Pictures richly told civil rights drama “Selma” is not only the re-telling of a historical part of America’s darkened past but the powerful film let’s us in on a long-held, not-so-quiet secret: The Civil Right Movement was bigger than one man.

One of the mythic injustices about the era has been the diminished role of the many men and women who maneuvered under the radar in keeping the movement going without signing off on a reality show, enjoying self-proclaimed titles or basking in some make-believe world in order for one person to hold the platform as the civil rights superhero.

Church bombings, sit-ins, doused by firehoses, attacked and bitten by police dogs, being spat on, having countless undocumented lives sacrificed at the hands of those masquerading as those upholding the law was not enough to stop them for seeking and finding justice.These are the real heroes of the movement. Thank God that “Selma” director Ava DuVernay and the film’s backer Oprah Winfrey had the stones to give these individuals their due as having a hand in the struggle to overcome.

Most of the participants in the struggle for equality for black folks were and still remain nameless. Others were mere buckets of casual identities who aligned themselves with the most famous spokesperson of all time.  Yes, the movement was much bigger and wider in scope than the marvelous Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Many of the people who marched for equal treatment under law, fought for voting rights and protested inhibited laws of segregation and Jim Crow, don’t have their names etched in the history books. Yes, some players in “Selma” we are somewhat familiar with names such as former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Congressman John Lewis (Stephan James), King ally Dr. Ralph Abernathy and longtime activist Hosea Williams (played by Wendell Pierce).

Tessa Thompson (center left) plays Diane Nash and Common (center) plays James Bevel in SELMA, from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films.
Tessa Thompson (center left) plays Diane Nash and Common (center) plays James Bevel in SELMA, from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films.

Some of those backyard players operating behind the scenes of the movement like Southern Christian Leadership Conference Director of Direct Action James Bevel (rapper/actor Common), strategist Bayard Rustin, Nashville Student Movement leader Diane Nash (actress Tessa Thompson) and activist/supporter Amelia Boynton Robinson (Lorraine Toussaint) are the ones that make King’s life easier to come and do his thing as the national spokesman of the Civil Rights Movement.

This is the essence of the epic drama, which is directly reflective of the strength of the people deeply mired in the battle for freedom.

“Selma” deserves more than two token Academy Awards it was nominated for.  The time period film, which exclusively focuses around “Bloody Sunday,” an important chapter of the Civil Rights Movement, is not another mudane Dr. Martin Luther King celebration. Thankfully, director Ava DuVernay’s movie does not put King on the mountaintop.

Instead it humanizes the civil rights leader in a way that hasn’t been done. More importantly, “Selma” gives the backdrop of some of the other players behind the scenes of the Civil Rights Movement struggle that had as much to do with the success of blacks attaining the rights as citizens in this country as any leader or elected official.

“Selma” is centered around the three-march episode on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as civil rights leaders tried to march from Selma to Montgomery. The outlining message in the film does not hover around the Superman status of King, but rather on the ordinary people who simply wanted to be treated equally as men and women.

That is the power of “Selma.” Perhaps the best thing that could have happened to the production of “Selma” is DuVernay not given permission to use any of King’s speeches. Without King’s momentous speeches, we would have been cheated out of the marvelous and Oscar-deserving work of actor David Oyelowo.

Wendell Pierce (far left) plays Rev. Hosea Williams and Stephan James (second from left) plays John Lewis in SELMA, from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films.
Wendell Pierce (far left) plays Rev. Hosea Williams and Stephan James (second from left) plays John Lewis in SELMA, from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films.

For anyone trying to portray King would have been a stern challenge, but Oyelowo pulls it off with a masterful performance as he downgrades King’s iconic figure as a thoughtful father, a husband with some weak tendencies and a vulnerable leader. Instead of being a man on his own island on the mountaintop, Oyelowo allows us to see a King who is just entrenched in his own frailties as he is vulnerable in his role to lead the movement.

DuVernay did us all a favor when she put together the civil rights epic “Selma.” Instead of looping us to another mudane Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  celebration, DuVernay went against the grain to us a film of authenticity with relevance.

The power of “Selma” is invoked in the totality of the film, from the gut-wrenching church bombing sequence that gives us the chance to identify the “Four Little Girls” taken away by the racist ambush to King’s back-and-forth battle with President Lyndon B. Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson) to the mercurial confrontations between civil rights protesters and law enforcement on the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge.

This is a film deserving of an Academy Award.

Dennis J. Freeman
About Dennis J. Freeman 1139 Articles

Dennis covers the NFL (Chargers), NBA (Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers), Major League Baseball (Los Angeles Dodgers) and NCAA sports (USC, UCLA, Long Beach State). Dennis has also covered and written on topics such as civil rights, politics and social justice. Dennis is a proud alum of Howard University.