Early in “Selma,” the story of the 1965 marches from that small Alabama town to Montgomery, we get a disagreeable meeting of two heavyweights. Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) welcomes Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) into the Oval Office to dissuade him, maybe, from the next act of social agitation, whatever that may be.
King explains, in terms rarely articulated so clearly in American popular culture, that the matter needing the most attention — voting — will not abide any further delay. Every fashion of Jim Crow law prevents black people from registering. As white people murder black people in the South, he says, they are protected by sheriffs and prosecutors chosen by an all-white electorate and, if ever sent to trial, face all-white juries, as jurors are chosen from among registered voters.
If you didn’t skip 10th-grade American history, you know what happened next: Johnson later signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and black Americans gained full civic equality virtually overnight. The law came to see folks of every color and creed as one unified people, worthy of the same rights and respect, provided equal protections in statute as well as in practice. Which is why it’s comforting to watch “Selma” now as a quaint historical artifact, much like the magazines you’re about to recycle, or a tweet from more than 20 minutes ago. Or more likely, we haven’t yet passed the so-called past.
No, if anything, “Selma” underlines how far we have come (vis-a-vis cops on horseback bull-whipping fleeing children) while reminding us of the worm-eaten history we’re stuck building our foundation atop. Tim Roth plays Alabama Gov. George Wallace with the right amount of indignation and self-righteousness, insisting as he sends state troopers to terrorize peaceful marchers that he wields no sway over those same people’s ability to cast a vote. That, after all, is a power reserved to county clerks, never mind that Wallace himself might find himself unemployed if all Alabama adults were counted.
King’s power at once seems smaller and greater in “Selma.” Aside from his winning the Nobel Peace Prize and holding court at times with Johnson, he appears to have little official sway, exhorting packed church congregations from a pulpit and speaking at times to reporters. But it’s worth asking whence his power derives. Oyelowo’s oration gives us a glimpse: King was a powerful writer and speaker.
Paul Webb’s screenplay takes advantage of its subject’s gifts, and yet, in her direction, Ava DuVernay has a funny way of minimizing King on the screen, often positioning him at the margins of the frame, making the words larger than the man. The film’s treatment of King’s extramarital affairs (a cudgel his detractors have swung at his legacy for years), though gentle, seems also arranged to underscore his status as a single, flawed guy.
God, religion and prayer make plenty of appearances; as with so many wars, both white and black in the South found justification in scripture for their positions. “Selma” is able to channel the depth of that moral righteousness into a story that feels depressingly, inspiringly current. The rapper/actor Common, who appears in King’s inner circle as James Bevel, just won the Golden Globe with John Legend for their original song “Glory” that plays over the end credits. What will jump out to even a lazy ear are lyrical references to Ferguson, Missouri, in that song.
Why, in part, did Ferguson ignite? It’s a two-thirds black town with an all-white city council. Whether that owes to apathy or systemic barriers, the results last summer were the same. Glory, glory hallelujah, no one next year is marching on from Selma to Montgomery. But the struggle continues to elect a government that reflects the will of the governed. It begins with getting yourself and your neighbors to the ballot box.