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‘Selma’ expounds the power of ideas

“Selma” (2014). Cast: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Carmen Ejogo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Martin Sheen, Oprah Winfrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Alessandro Nivola, André Holland, Wendell Pierce, Common, Lorraine Toussaint, Omar J. Dorsey, Colman Domingo, Nigel Thatch, Stephan James, Trai Byers, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Tessa Thompson, Jeremy Strong, Keith Stanfield, Henry G. Sanders, Charity Jordan, Stan Houston, John Lavelle, Dylan Baker, E. Roger Mitchell, Niecy Nash, Tara Ochs. Director: Ava DuVernay. Screenplay: Paul Webb. Web site. Trailer

Bringing a concept to life can be an exceedingly challenging exercise, especially when dramatic change is involved. But, when success at last arrives, the rewards can be immeasurable. So it was in the days of one of the nation’s most turbulent social movements, circumstances brought to life in the gripping new historical drama, “Selma.”

In early 1965, Selma, Alabama became the focal point of the American civil rights movement. In a community where only 2% of African-Americans were legally registered to vote, local Black residents (aided by activists from elsewhere) began making a push to abolish the obstructionist registration policies that kept them from lawfully casting ballots. The implications of this extended far beyond the ability to vote, too, since voter registration impacted who got elected (and, consequently, who passed legislation, set public policy and enforced the law), as well as who could sit on juries (and, by extension, the means by which “justice” was dispensed). Such policies thus served to perpetuate state and local government administrations dominated by White segregationists hell-bent on continuing long-standing prejudicial practices. It also didn’t help matters that the State of Alabama was led by Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth), who defiantly vowed during his initial inauguration to champion “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Under conditions like these, Selma was ripe for change, and the leading civil rights activist of the time, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo), stepped up to the plate to address the issue. He proposed to lead a protest march from Selma to the Alabama state capital in Montgomery to draw attention to the voting rights issue. However, despite the popular appeal of his proposal, there were many obstacles to overcome.

For instance, local sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston), with the blessing of Gov. Wallace, vowed to block the marchers’ path, declaring their actions an unlawful public assembly. What’s more, despite a general pledge of support for King’s civil rights activities, President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) tried to discourage the reverend’s plans, fearing that they would lead to civil disturbances and potentially undermine LBJ’s war on poverty program, a cherished Presidential initiative aimed at bettering the lives of the poor (particularly minorities). On top of all that, King also had to contend with internal squabbles within the civil rights community, most notably differences of opinion about how to proceed between groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and among coalitions of nonviolent advocates (led by the likes of King) and more militant factions (led by the likes of Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch)).

Still, despite these challenges, King was not deterred. He was determined to move ahead, thanks to his own efforts and the aid of his many supporters, including Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), Rev. Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), Andrew Young (André Holland), James Bevel (Common), James Orange (Omar J. Dorsey) and Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson), along with SNCC organizer John Lewis (Stephan James) and civil rights attorney Fred Gray (Cuba Gooding Jr.). A number of citizen protesters lent valuable support, too, such as former suffragette Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint) and would-be voting registrant Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), who tried to join the ranks of the electorate many times, all without success. Even officials and appointees at the federal level had impact, most notably District Court Judge Frank Minis Johnson, Jr. (Martin Sheen) and Presidential advisor Lee White (Giovanni Ribisi).

But, even with such support, King’s efforts faced new obstacles as he sought to move forward, such as attempts at destabilization of his sometimes-rocky marriage to wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) through a character assassination allegedly orchestrated by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker). Matters were subsequently made worse by the killing of civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) while he was attempting to protect his mother (Charity Jordan) and grandfather (Henry G. Sanders) from state troopers using excessive force to disperse a public protest. And, through it all, King’s attempts at seeking federal assistance for his efforts met with increasingly harsh criticism and growing animosity from the Commander-in-Chief.

Challenges aside, however, word of what was happening in Alabama could not be kept quiet, thanks to the reporting of journalists like Roy Reed (John Lavelle). But what ultimately broke the story wide open was nationwide television coverage of what transpired on Sunday March 7, 1965. As 600 protesters made their first attempt to launch a march from Selma to Montgomery, they were brutally beaten and tear-gassed by police in riot gear as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way out of town, an event that was broadcast around the world and came to be known as Bloody Sunday. The public outrage over this abuse of power birthed a wellspring of new support for the protesters, prompting a huge influx of additional marchers for the cause, including people of many faiths and racial backgrounds who made the journey to Selma, often from great distances, to become involved. Thus began a tremendous turnaround in the fortunes of the protesters, a momentum shift that would lead to a successful march and eventual passage and enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The civil rights movement was, of course, a much larger phenomenon than just the events that transpired in Selma, but those that occurred in that small Alabama town in that fateful winter and spring of 1965 were among some of its most significant, mainly because of the reach of the ramifications involved. The fruits those events bore, however, never would have materialized were it not for the ideas that inspired them – ideas that arose through the power of beliefs. And, as those who practice conscious creation know all too well, none of the sought-after outcomes that result from it would manifest without them.

The movement in general, and the experiences in Selma in particular, clearly show the power associated with our beliefs, especially when they’re employed en masse. To be sure, the power associated with an individual’s belief can be substantial, but, when it’s amplified many times over by the input of like-minded masses, it becomes an unstoppable juggernaut. Such is what happened in Selma; as the push for voting rights grew, the initiative took on a life of its own as it drew upon the belief power of locals, and then activists, and eventually supporters from far-flung corners of the country. Even with the complications posed by the aforementioned obstacles, the central idea driving these events (and the manifesting beliefs underlying it) simply could not be stifled, especially once word of what was happening spread across the nation and growing numbers of participants began contributing their energy and support to the cause.

In pursuing a goal as noble as this, one might legitimately wonder why its proponents would manifest a scenario that included such obstacles to begin with; why not create suitable circumstances without such challenges in the first place? Yet the emergence of those impediments, as difficult to contend with as they were, helped galvanize the thoughts and intents of the movement’s participants, thereby making it possible for them to “keep their eyes on the prize,” as King often termed it. Focus, it seems, sometimes benefits from adversity, counterintuitive though that may initially appear.

Of course, the masses would not have had an idea to get behind were it not for the visionary beliefs of the initiative’s leadership, most notably Dr. King. He knew that changing the voting rights issue would subsequently change many other aspects of his constituents’ lives, so his belief in furthering this cause only grew stronger with the passage of time, even as the stakes were raised. His commitment inspired many, giving birth to the initiative and fostering its objectives. As King’s example thus shows, the power of an individual’s beliefs is nothing to be dismissed or minimized.

A key quality characterizing the beliefs of this movement was the notion of pushing through barriers, specifically the dissolution of prevailing limitations that kept a significant portion of the population from being able to exercise a fundamental civil right. Breaking down this wall was by no means easy, as becomes readily apparent on many occasions, such as during the depiction of one of Annie Lee Cooper’s failed attempts at registering to vote. Yet, despite the arbitrary and capricious restrictions imposed on would-be voters, those committed to securing this right were so determined to see it through that they were willing to employ whatever manifesting beliefs were necessary to reach their goal. And the proof of their success lies in what they ultimately achieved. Staying hungry, it would seem, can truly pay off, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

The impact of mass-created events like this is substantial not only on the group as a whole but also on the individuals participating in them. One need only look at how the events in Selma shaped the beliefs, lives and accomplishments of those who lived through it. Many of King’s key supporters were so empowered by their group experiences that they went on to materialize impressive creations of their own: Andrew Young would go on to become Mayor of Atlanta and US Ambassador to the United Nations; John Lewis became a long-tenured member of the House of Representatives; and Amelia Boynton ran for Congress, the first African-American woman ever to do so. Indeed, as these experiences show, the beliefs that underlie untried possibilities can produce remarkable results, whether applied collectively or individually.

“Selma” has so much going for it that it’s difficult not to gush about this film. In my opinion, it’s easily the best picture of 2014, just about perfect in nearly every respect. The outstanding cast features superb performances by Oyelowo, Wilkinson and Roth, as well as a fine ensemble of supporting players. Moreover, filmmaker Ava Duvernay impeccably shows off her directorial skills, clearly demonstrating her talent as one of the industry’s rising stars.

But what perhaps impresses me most about this film is its dedication to authenticity. It’s not afraid to present events realistically, both in its portrayal of the indignities inflicted on the protesters and in its depiction of the civil rights community’s internal squabblings, such as the conflicts between King and Malcolm X, the tension between King and LBJ, and the infighting between the SCLC and the SNCC. It’s also frank in its portrayal of the principal players in this drama, showing them as human beings who are just as capable of materializing fears and flaws as they are of enlightened insights (King’s doubts about what actions to take at times, as well as his alleged infidelities, for example, are presented just as candidly as his many inspiring achievements). In taking this approach, the picture successfully avoids the traps of unwarranted political correctness or unrealistic monodimensional characterizations. Much of the credit for this goes to screenwriter Paul Webb, who has penned an excellent script here.

“Selma” is also more than a period piece picture; its relevance to contemporary events is particularly noteworthy. As society debates the current state of relations between the police and the public, for example, the issue of alleged use of excessive force by today’s peace keepers eerily echoes comparable tactics employed in Alabama 50 years ago. This is especially true with regard to recent high-profile incidents like those in New York and in Ferguson, Missouri involving White officers and alleged minority perpetrators. The picture thus reminds us that, no matter how much progress we may think we have made in these matters, we still have a long way to go before these issues are no longer relevant.

In addition to the praise critics have lavished on this film, the picture has already received considerable recognition in this year’s awards competitions. Thus far, “Selma” has earned four Golden Globe Award nominations (best dramatic picture, best director, best original song and best dramatic actor for Oyelowo), five Critics Choice Award nods (best picture, best director, best original song, best acting ensemble and best actor for Oyelowo) and recognition in five Independent Spirit Award categories (best picture, best director, best cinematography, best actor for Oyelowo and best supporting actress for Ejogo). Given the current momentum behind this picture, it’s almost certain to pick up a fair share of Oscar nominations as well.

The glaring inequities that prevailed in the early days of the civil rights movement impelled the emergence of the changes that eventually followed. Overcoming those imbalances, however, required decisive, concerted action, both in the realm of our beliefs and in the world of our actions. Indeed, as Dr. King so eloquently observed, “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” The importance of this in circumstances such as these can’t be overstated, especially given our intrinsic human connectedness and our tremendous capacity for invoking relevant, much-needed change. Regardless of whether one assesses these issues practically or metaphysically, their impact cannot be denied. Or, as Dr. King so aptly put it, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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