Movie Review: Portrayals of Dr. King, his wife and close allies highlight a stirring “Selma” – Sunday June 20 on CBS, 7 – 10 p.m. CDT
Published: June 20th, 2021
Patrick B. McGuigan, Movie Review
NOTE: This review from 2015 is revised slightly, with more detailed reflections on Dr. Ralph Abernathy’s role in the civil rights movement.
“Selma” powerfully captures the character, vision and magnetism of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – and, thankfully, that of his wife.
David Oyelowo as Dr. King and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King are revelations. Close your eyes, to hear MLK’s voice in Oyelowo’s cadence. As you open them, Ejogo passes for Mrs. King’s twin.
The film briefly touches upon King’s Nobel Peace Prize lecture, then jumps to events before the march he led into Selma.
MLK’s best-known frailties briefly enter the story. Yet, a viewer’s knowledge of that gives context to his courage.
His wife forgave him, and he persevered knowing his secrets were being used against him.
A major criticism: An otherwise effective screenplay by Paul Webb distorts President Lyndon B. Johnson‘s views. This is not a quibble, but a concern for posterity. Yes, every historical movie takes liberties. Still, great care is needed in presenting the views of real people. I am not a major fan of President Johnson, yet he is not quite treated fairly in this motion picture.
LBJ’s views on racial justice are portrayed inaccurately. The grandeur of the 1965 federal push for voting rights, perfectly delivered by actor Tom Wilkinson, is eroded by a narrative that makes him appear to be a reluctant warrior.
Certainly, there is evidence Johnson was racist in his early years of Texas politics, but not in his policy record as vice president (under John F. Kennedy) and president.
A criticism: In its theatrical release, the film under-portrays the part Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo, in just minutes of screen time) played in the movement of American equality, and in King’s inner circle. He became leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (which King had led) after Dr. King’s murder. Dr. Abernathy was a passionate Christian leader, and in fact late in his life stepped away from political activism to concentrate anew on ministry. It is a timely matter to remember that he was a leading advocate for local, state and national observances of “Juneteenth” .
Depictions of Dr. King’s other close associates – Andrew Young (André Holland), Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) and especially of John Lewis (Stephan James) and Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce) – are stellar.
And, credit hip-hop artist Common for a deft turn as James Bevel. Film fans have become accustomed to Common’s acting ability in recent years, but that is an aspect in his career of relatively recent vintage. In the theatrical version of the movie, the moment when Bevel and his colleagues inform King about the murder of white Christian minister, an ally of the civil rights cause, is priceless. In real time and with brilliant restraint, Oyelowo captures the greatness in Dr. King’s outreach to all Americans, for all the right reasons.
Despite any limitations, the movie is highly recommended.
Costuming, filming, manners of speaking, and the characters’ language evoke a era, with a rare quota of anachronisms.
At the heart of this film reside Dr. King’s humanity and deep faith in Jesus Christ as his Savior. More and more, Dr. King’s transcendent and transformational message of faith is being forgotten or even hidden in analysis and reporting of his life. ‘Selma’ does not fall into this trap.
It is rated PG-13, as it must be. Accurately portrayed is the violence racists inflicted on civil rights supporters of every hue in the 1960s. Wrenching and heart-breaking is the opening sequence bearing witness to the fate of five lovely African-American girls.
“Selma” is noble film-making. It is a timely reminder that, as MLK would say, justice is not only a destination, but also a journey.
Martin Luther King understood we are unlikely to reach true justice in this fallen world. After the events portrayed in Selma, and just a few months before his death in 1968, Dr. King delivered a speech at the University of Newcastle in England. In that address of just a few hundred words, he articulated the original aspirations of the noble cause he led:
“[T]here can be no separate black path to power and fulfillment that does not intersect white routes and there can be no separate white path to power and fulfillment short of social disaster that does not recognize the necessity of sharing that power with colored aspirations for freedom and human dignity. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation, and of all the nations of the world, into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood and speed up the day when all over the world justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
The struggle itself is part of faithful service to the One Who redeems us, and Who can yet sustain America.
NOTE:The founder of CapitolBeatOK.com, McGuigan is also editor of The City Sentinel, an Oklahoma City newspaper where this review appeared in the Jan. 22, 2015 edition, as well as at the website www.City-Sentinel.com.