By Michelle Adhémar
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Issue 399

Early in 1965 civil rights activists and leaders agreed to focus their efforts on registering black voters in the Southern states of the US in the face of violent opposition. The campaign culminated in a 50-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, the state capital. This film documents the three-month campaign, and especially Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s involvement in it. It is a powerful story told in a sensitive manner.

The resulting Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B Johnson on 6 August that year. In the film’s opening scene we see King preparing to accept a Nobel Peace Prize in October 1964. In that year the Civil Rights Act had been passed, legally ending segregation and racial discrimination at the voting booth. It soon became clear that, despite this legislation, both were continuing.

Black people had the right to vote in the South but were prevented from doing so by harassment, physical attacks and bureaucratic measures. By 1965, in a majority black city, only 300 of Selma’s 15,000 potential black voters were registered.

King decides a non-violent march could draw publicity to the cause. He is proved right when national television broadcasts state troopers attacking peaceful protesters on what became known as Bloody Sunday. Alabama governor George Wallace will not tolerate any change to the status quo and he bans further marches. Eventually Johnson cannot withstand the pressure and he pledges to protect the protesters when they again insist on attempting the five-day march.

The film focuses on King’s leadership. David Oyelowo is brilliant as King. He is central to the story but the movement he was part of and inspired is also prominent. The film does well to portray the uncertainty and differences of opinion and strategy of the different groups and individuals involved. It delicately illustrates that not everything was planned and not everything worked. It shows a real struggle and the dynamics that play out, which is refreshing.

King’s speeches are paraphrased as the film makers didn’t have legal access to his speech archive. This doesn’t detract from the story, but it has led some to question the film’s historical accuracy. The sentiment of his words definitely still comes across, and it’s possible that the paraphrasing works better when trying to cram three months of struggle into 127 minutes.

Selma manages beautifully to articulate a struggle of historic importance. Our tragedy is that the same arguments still need to be made today. Young black men are still being killed by police and peaceful protesters are still on the streets. The film also shows that, however brave the struggle for the vote has been, there is so much more we have to fight for.

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