Voices Across Borders
The Blog of the Race and Resistance Research Network at TORCH
Posted by: Tumi Belo
Date: 12 February 2015
Selma – a first review, by Tumi Belo
Although it marks fifty years since Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s iconic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, “Selma” could not have arrived at a more pertinent moment in history. It is in part a political drama, detailing the bureaucratic, legal obstacles to racial equality, and in part a biopic, providing a thought-provoking insight into the personal battles King faced in his private life. Scenes depicting the slow, almost sleepy pace of the American south are effectively interspersed with dramatic moments of tense dialogue, and –necessarily- violence. This convincingly portrays what must have been the startling reality for the residents of Selma in March 1965, when King and his supporters arrived to make history. Gripping, touching, and very relevant, Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” is undoubtedly one of the most important films made in recent years.
It is packed with all the qualities that you would expect or hope for in a critically acclaimed film about the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, including conflict, desperation, and optimism. The seeming impossibility of the struggle for equality is presented early on in the film as the civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper attempts to register to vote in Selma. Despite having the legal qualification and all the correct paperwork, Cooper is denied her right by a white clerk behind a desk, as so many African Americans were and continue to be today. Yet, she does not give up. That is the heart of the film, and of the history itself. American minorities held strong to their faith that their fight and determination would someday lead to equality.
We are given the sense throughout the film that every conversation, every decision we witness, carries the weight of history on its shoulders, and has the potential to change the world. The sense of urgency never wavers, and as viewers we are kept asking what next? and how can these characters achieve victory in the face of staunch opposition from the local, state and federal government? This urgency is, of course, thanks to the tour-de-force talent of the film’s director and leading actor, DuVernay and David Oyelowo, respectively.
However, after the various obstacles are overcome, and the protesters have manages to execute the historic demonstration, and King has delivered a moving speech that gives every listener goose bumps, the audience is still left asking the same questions. What next for the African American struggle for equality, today? What will it take for African Americans and people of colour to gain the social and political rights for which they have fought for so long? The recent resurgence of activism and social movements across America, for instance in Ferguson last summer, proves that the fight for equality is still ongoing and making positive strides. But police brutality against black bodies, mass incarceration, and the denial of democratic rights to minorities because of spurious voter ID laws suggests that there is still much to be overcome.
Tumi Belo is at St. Catherine's College. She is doing the MSt in US history, and her thesis looks at the Anglo-Indian relationship in colonial New England, and at the origins of American racism more broadly.
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