PORT ANGELES, Wash. – We didn’t see the Academy Awards on TV because we were at the Deer Park Cinema a few miles from our home. And what film did we go to see? Selma. On the big screen! As far as I am concerned, this film directed by Ava DuVernay should have won every award in sight – best film, best screenplay, best director, best leading actors, best supporting cast (in the thousands), best music, best cinematography.
The film dramatized the blood-soaked struggle to win voting rights for disenfranchised African Americans across the South, a battle focused on the little rural Alabama town of Selma, 34 miles south of the state capital, Montgomery.
There are so many high points – and low points – in this film I can’t chose which one is the greatest. There are, of course, the repeated marches, and attempted marches, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Chills went up my spine when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – performed by British actor, David Oyelowo – at a church service in Selma delivers the eulogy for Jimmy Lee Jackson.
Jackson is a quietspoken local youth, an activist in the voting rights struggle shot down by white police officers in a café as he struggled to protect his mother.
Among the emotional high points of the film is the scene at the mortuary in which King and Rev. Ralph David Abernathy console Jackson’s 84-year-old father who fights back tears as he views the body of his son.
“Who killed Jimmy Lee Jackson?” King thunders in his eulogy, reciting the list of those guilty of the homicide starting with the cops, Gov. George Wallace, but also including every man and woman who has remained silent as the struggle escalated to win the most basic right in a democracy.
There are powerful scenes of Dr. King meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson, struggling to convince the President that upholding voting rights is an issue that cannot be postponed. As the mass movement grows in power and militancy, it comes up against Wallace and his white supremacist motto, “Segregation now, segregation forever!”
The youthful John Lewis, an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), throws his full support behind King’s strategy of a nonviolent march from Selma to Montgomery to win the voting rights struggle.
Then comes the first march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, when Alabama state troopers beat Lewis almost to death. Lewis is revered today as the “conscience of the nation,” serving in the Republican dominated U.S. House, every day denouncing their backward, racist policies.
In the film, King argues persuasively for nonviolent tactics aimed at winning over not only African Americans but also the vast majority of white working people as well. Hundreds of anti-racist white people such as the martyred Viola Liuzzo, join the Selma-Montgomery march.
Selma did win an Oscar for best original song, “Glory.” The composers, John Legend and Common, sang it live on stage at the Academy Awards. They were backed up by an African American gospel chorus. Interspersed throughout the song are spoken lines, “That’s why Rosa sat on the bus…That’s why we walked through Ferguson with our hands up,” and predicting that one day the people, of all races, will put “Jim Crow under a bald eagle.”
In 2005, I traveled down to Selma to cover the “Bridge Crossing Jubilee.” I interviewed the Rev. C.T. Vivian, one of Dr. King’s closest co-workers (Corey Reynolds portrays Vivian in the film).
Vivian denounced the Supreme Court’s decision, in Dec. 2000, to stop the vote count in Florida, installing George W. Bush in the White House, stripping thousands of African Americans of their voting rights.
This film could not be released at a more timely moment. The racist majority on the U.S. Supreme Court has thrown out the pre-clearance section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the most important enforcement tool of the law signed by Lyndon B. Johnson. Across the nation, the Republican right, heirs to George Wallace, are on the warpath, determined to strip Black and Latino people of their voting rights.
In accepting the Oscar for their song, Common told the crowd, “Recently, John (Legend) and I got to go to Selma and perform it on the same bridge that Martin Luther King walked over. Once a landmark of a divided nation, the spirit of this bridge is now for all people regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or social status. This bridge was built on hope and welded with compassion.”
John Legend added, “We wrote this film for events that happened 50 years ago but we say that Selma is NOW. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more Black men incarcerated today than were in slavery in 1850.” (And none of them can exercise their right to vote).
The crowd at the Academy Award ceremony stood and cheered. Somebody said that Selma stole the show. How true.