By Susan Russo
Ava DuVernay has made a movie, based on the true events depicting the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, that still resonates today. With a cast led by David Oyelowo, a young British actor, playing the role of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., this movie is a testament not only to King’s determination, but his brilliance as a leader, his
sacrifices, his family, his disparate but loyal followers, and his belief that non-violence was the only way to accomplish the major goal of voting rights for African-Americans throughout America. King met with leaders of many factions, such as Malcolm X, a radical leader, whom he convinced (in the movie) not to appear at the march, and members of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), persevering in his belief that only non-violence would prove to be the most effective way to make his and his followers’ dreams a reality. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had recently passed, outlawing segregation, a great victory for human rights, but King believed that true equality for all Americans would never be achieved without the right to vote. Selma was chosen as a rallying place to begin the marches to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama. (Selma was a town in which more than 50% of the population was African-American, but fewer than 1% of that population had been allowed to register to vote, due to the all-white registrars’ arbitrary requirements). In one memorable scene in the movie, Annie Cooper, a non-violent activist (played by Oprah Winfrey), when demanded to by the registrar, recited the entire Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, gave the correct number of circuit court justices in the county (67), but was rejected because she could not give all their names (!) This movie highlights many of the people who planned the marches with King – Ralph Abernathy, leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), leaders of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), and Andrew Young, Jr., who, still living at 82, helped to draft the Voting Rights Act, was a leading activist, and later became an American ambassador. Another march planner was John Lewis, who today is a Congressman (prominently seen in attendance at President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, January 20, this year.) Other notables depicted in the movie were President Lyndon Johnson (played by British actor Tom Wilkinson), whom Dr. King met, spoke, and negotiated with a number of times about the marches and voting rights. Other major characters in the movie were Coretta Scott King, his wife and mother of his four children (played by a British actress, Carmen Ejogo) and Alabama Governor George Wallace (played by another Brit, Tim Roth.) Some notable American actors in smaller parts were Cuba Gooding, Jr., playing a lawyer, Martin Sheen, playing a judge, and Giovanni Ribisi, playing a presidential advisor.
It is a movie filled with moving scenes of real people in moments of confusion, fear, tension, wrangling, human frailty, humor, hope, and triumph. The determination of all the marchers is ennobling. The long marches, with men, women, students, and children dressed for church (as in the 1950’s), but carrying suitcases, bedrolls, and food packages, is a testament to courage, resilience and determination. The images of armed police and state troopers with gas masks and night sticks, horses and whips are frightening, and the assaults on the unarmed people are almost unwatchable, as are the depictions of people on the sidelines cheering the fray. The director also utilized actual newsreel footage of the attacks, which is devastating. The violence of the first march was shown on black-and-white TV, and the outrage felt by many Americans led to white people joining the second and third marches. The U.S. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
The original script of the movie was written by English writer Paul Webb in 2007, with additional revisions of the final script by the director, Ava DuVernay. Among the producers of the film were Pathe U.K., Brad Pitt, and Harpo Films (founded by Oprah Winfrey). The production cost $20 million, which, in Hollywood, is considered a modest amount for a major movie.