Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.
Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love, 1963
There were plenty of misguided men in power in the USA when Dr Martin Luther King Junior devoted his life to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. America was fighting a war in Vietnam supposedly to free the Vietnamese from tyranny yet denied their own citizenry basic rights because of the colour of their skin! Not surprising that my generation, who observed the nightly television news and read the newspaper headlines believed they’d never see an African-American as President of the United States. I’m sure many, like me, wept with joy at President Obama’s Inauguration in 2009.
Tonight, I attended a preview of Selma courtesy of Taylored Film and StudioCanal and highly recommend this moving account, of 1965, when Dr Martin Luther King Junior became inextricably linked with others in Selma, Alabama to fight for all African-Americans to have the right to vote.
David Oyelowo is magnificent as Martin Luther King Jnr, as are some of the others in the cast – yet not one received a nomination for awards, which is disappointing. My daughter, Mary Jane who accompanied me to the preview said Selma has more impact than Twelve Years A Slave because audiences can’t dismiss the events as being in the distant past. Selma is about an era recognisably recent. It is not Klu Klux Klansmen being violent and nasty, but ordinary American citizens choosing to discriminate, attack and murder their fellow Americans because those in power allow them to do so.
There is plenty of archival footage of MLK and David Oyelowo captures him so well that you have no trouble believing that Dr King is on the screen. His spirituality never a question and the film handles his deep religious convictions and those of others around him very well without making it the focus.
The opening scenes catapult you straight into the story and action. You are shocked by what was a reality for African-Americans so be prepared for your blood pressure to rise and tears to flow. For those who lived through the era, it is a reminder of how ordinary people began to use massive street protests to force governments to change policies – people power.
Archival footage is used effectively in Selma to lend authenticity to the dramatisation of true events. And it is a drama, not a documentary. The filmmakers have done an excellent job telling an amazing story in a couple of hours of screen time. There have been debates about accuracy regarding some of the players during that tumultuous time, but not the essence of King’s leadership and achievements and the courage of the people of Alabama.
There is in-your-face violence, its accuracy confronting but necessary. The shooting of the protest scenes, the use of close-ups and slow motion creates powerful and memorable images. Other visuals accompanied by music and the effective use of silence enhance the action scenes. Selma’s cinematography is superb.
The divisions within the movement – the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Malcolm X and King’s passive, but provocative, non-violent group of clerics are shown, so too, the larger than life personalities of racists like Governor George Wallace and Sheriff Jim Clark, a man who provoked this response from writer James Baldwin:
I suggest that what has happened to the white Southerner is in some ways much worse than what has happened to the Negroes there … One has to assume that he is a man like me, but he does not know what drives him to use the club, to menace with a gun, and to use a cattle prod against a woman’s breasts … Their moral lives have been destroyed by a plague called color.
As I sat in the cinema tonight I wondered how many in the audience know of Australia’s civil rights struggle and how we treated, and still treat Aboriginal Australians. I was a student at ANU during the campaign for indigenous land rights and witnessed police brutality when they tried to destroy the tent embassy. It was terrifying when the police weighed in with batons and fists.
I hope the cinemas are filled when Selma is released this week and people absorb the lessons of an amazing story and an even more amazing man. I hope too, they ponder what is happening here in Australia right now – the terrible gap in health and educational outcomes for Aboriginal Australians in comparison to other Australians. I hope they are motivated to speak up and to work for change.