"Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields painfully to change."
— Robert F. Kennedy
In 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., (David Oyelowo in an Academy-Award caliber performance) and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) are preparing for their trip to Stockholm where he will receive the Nobel Peace Prize. The previous year King had aroused the conscience of the nation with his "I Have a Dream" speech at a rally in Washington at the base of the Lincoln Memorial. But the South is still in the grip of racial hatred as demonstrated by the bombing of a church in Birmingham that kills four black girls.
Black citizens, like the hospice nurse Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), have been repeatedly intimidated and turned away in their attempts to register to vote. Now King is planning to rally blacks in Selma, Alabama to engage in large-scale demonstrations, including a march from Selma to the capitol of Montgomery. His goal is to convince President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to get behind voting rights legislation that will be enforced with the full power of the law.
"Democracy is a process, not a static condition. It is becoming, rather than being. It can easily be lost, but never is fully won. Its essence is eternal struggle."
— William H. Hastie
The substantive screenplay of Selma, written by Paul Webb, vividly conveys the complex struggles faced by King as he and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference contend with the youthful members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee over the right strategy to win the allegiance of a majority of Americans to their cause. In a moving vignette, Coretta King listens to Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) as he admits his differences with her husband over the practice of nonviolence but promises to support the Selma demonstrations. Meanwhile the pressure of hate calls and threats of death bother King and his wife who grow more anxious in "the constant closeness of death."
The most powerful point in this compelling drama is the depiction of the violent attack on the marchers by police on the Edmond Pettus Bridge. In this sequence, Henry G. Sanders turns in a touching performance as the 82-year-old father of one of the young men who had been killed in a previous demonstration. We are also impressed by the passion of other members of the leadership team, including John Lewis (Stefan James) and Rev. Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce).
In several meetings at the White House, King pressures President Johnson to send a voting rights bill to Congress. He asks how the President can fund a war in Vietnam while refusing to fight against the crimes perpetrated against his own people. King's energy is also drained by a crusade of hatred by governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and the secret campaign of J. Edgard Hoover (Dylan Baker) to discredit him.
"True freedom is to share all the chains our brothers wear and with heart and hand to be earnest to make others free."
— James Russell Lowell
The best thing about Selma is that it is so convincing in its portrayal of how nonviolent action can effect social change. It is an inspiring moment when the Selma community is joined by priests, nuns, ministers, and rabbis on the march from Selma to Montgomery, united in their pursuit of freedom, equality, and justice. Here we see the important roles of prayer, Scripture passages, hymns, and community solidarity.
In these times, when government leaders seem all too quick to use violence against their perceived enemies, and individuals all too often rely on guns to settle grievances, we look back at the civil rights movement with admiration and the utmost respect. The leaders in Selma are the kind of leaders we need today.
It is fascinating to watch the end credits for Selma where we learn the fates of those we have traveled with in this soul-stirring drama. While allowing the film to simmer in our minds, we came across this spiritual rule used by Dr. Martin Luther King to guide the nonviolent protests of the civil rights movement. As you ponder these ethical precepts keep in mind how timely they still are:
"Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
Remember always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation, not victory.
Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
Pray daily to be used by God in order that all might be free.
Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all might be free.
Seek to perform regular service for others and the world.
Refrain from violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
Follow the directions of the movement and the captains of a demonstration."
— from Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life by Marjorie J. Thompson
Let's end with this thought-provoking quotation from William Sloane Coffin:
"To know God is to do justice. To recognize this implacable moral imperative of the faith represents the kind of good religion that mixes well with politics."
May we all know and experience more of this kind of good religion in the months and years to come.
Special features on the Blu-Ray/DVD include commentary by Director Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo; commentary by Director Ava DuVernay, Director of Photography Bradford Young and Editor Spencer Averick; featurette: The Road to Selma; featurette: Recreating Selma; additional Scenes: deleted and extended Scenes; featurette: Testimonials; music videos: "Glory" Music Video; featurette: Historical; featurette: Selma Student Tickets: Donor Appreciation; featurette: National Voting Rights Museum and Institute; other: Selma Discussion Guide.